A story is told that during the intense negotiations of debt relief in the mid 2000s or thereabouts under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (Hipc) initiative, one of the technical people from a developed country who was helping Malawi to reach decision and completion points was flying to one of these make or break meetings in Europe.
He flew economy class.
As he was boarding the plane and walked passed business class, he noticed, lo and behold, that sitting relaxed in the spacious and comfortable seats, probably with glasses of whisky in hand (my assumption), was a delegation from a poor country on whose behalf he was supposed to beg for debt relief.
They were Capital Hill officials from Malawi in business class going to the same meeting he was heading.
The mzungu negotiator could not believe that Malawi Government officials could be this insensitive to the plight of their poor country men and women as well as to the future of the delicate negotiations.
He proceeded to his humble economy seat having lost the motivation to fight for the fat cats he saw in business class. He only proceeded with his task because innocent lives back in Malawi were involved. Still, he was astounded.
Recently, a colleague who was travelling from Zimbabwe together with a group of fellow professionals in a women’s leadership programme on May 21 this year told me that she was shocked to note that in the Malawian Airlines flight that was connecting them home at Oliver Tambo in South Africa, one of their fellow passengers, sitting just two seats in front of them in economy class, was United States of America (USA) Ambassador to Malawi Virginia Palmer.
My colleague could not believe it! Her country is not just the biggest economy in the world by far, but has emerged as the biggest source of aid in Malawi. And she flies economy and appeared quite comfortable in there!
Now picture this: A cabal of bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation plan to attend some meetings outside the country.
One is to travel to Mozambique for some so-called extra-ordinary meeting of the Ministerial Committee of the Organ (whatever that means in diplo-speak!). It looks like the ministry has no money for them to travel. Instead of foregoing the trip, they embark on their idea of innovative and outside-the-box thinking.
They snoop in embassies around the world and viola! There is some money in the Malawi Embassy account in Berlin, Germany.
Our fat allowances and air tickets will come from there, they reason jubilantly while, I assume, grinning from ear to ear and giving each other high fives for their questionably creative funding mobilisation strategy, if it can be called that.
The ministry’s principal secretary (PS), a beneficiary of the decision, quickly dispatches a letter to the Ambassador in Berlin to release the funds for a Mozambican adventure. That is on May 27 2016.
Two days later, another potential trip comes up. This time the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation is up for travel and, surprise, surprise, the PS is accompanying the ministry’s political leader.
Thus, on May 31, a letter is dispatched to Berlin again where the PS’s “assurances of my highest consideration” are dutifully inserted in the missive—it is a boiler plate for diplomatic memoranda.
The PS is, once again, authorising the Ambassador to draw funds from the same deposit account to upgrade air tickets for the minister and the PS and pay for their external travel allowances which, according to the instruction, should be wired to some bank in Rwanda.
This time, there is no mention of where the duo is going, when and what they will be doing. Of particular interest is the issue of upgrading their tickets.
I assume the upgrade is from economy to business so that the two officials representing arguably the poorest country in the world can have a cloud nine feeling in the air while sipping some exotic drinks and relaxing on seats that are as comfortable as beds.
Meanwhile, their President has just announced that more than half the population (at least eight million people) will be starving this year. The President has since gone out with a begging bowl.
As they spent millions of kwacha in their connecting business lounges across the globe, people are dying because there isn’t medicine in public hospitals to cure them.
It is a typical case of fat bureaucrats and politicians feasting while throwing bones not even at the poor writhing with hunger a short distance from the table, but tossing the bones well beyond the reach of the starving poor.
Flying business class is about ego and greed and people like Virginia Palmer know that; hence, they choose to serve not be served. They realise and revel in the realisation that public service is about the larger good, not self-aggrandisement.
The President has been sending the message of austerity across the country, but allows his Cabinet ministers and PSs to fly like they run a Fortune 500 company instead of an increasingly impoverished nation? What a sick joke!
Leaders must either share the pain of those that they lead or they should be kicked out of their leadership positions. It is a no brainer.