A huge level of expectation was built once there was a change in government a few months ago, albeit under sad conditions. In certain circles, it was good riddance to a government that let donors to tighten aid screws. Waves of optimism sprouted and unqualified hopes, often beset by ignorance of aid politics, rose so high. Devaluation of the kwacha followed and a few other laws were repealed that impinged on freedoms. Unfortunately, the wave of inflation never ceased and sooner than later, a donor backlash has emerged.
There is a feeling of betrayal after all the rapid reforms and the resultant spatial inflows of prized donor funds. Talks of fixing the kwacha are making serious rounds to allegedly tame inflation. Of course, it is difficult to tame inflation by fixing a currency with insufficient reserves amid high import dependency. But we need to do some soul-searching if foreign aid will really mean anything to the lives of the poorest of our society. Otherwise, the future is a bumpy ride.
Aid and its conditions
The feeling that donors have not fulfilled their pledges despite all the reforms is rampant. Even though we do not know what development partners have disbursed, not all has come in as pledged. The high street backlash goes on to condemn their tight hand due to too many conditions. An element of goal-shifting by donors seems to be the path that is guiding the backlash. But I hasten to say, we are not entitled to donor money. We must learn to live with their conditions, and even better, if we play our part in truly fighting corruption. Never should we be so blind to easy money coming from the eastern side of the world. Heaps of hidden costs exist. Abuse of public resources is the core jinx with our traditional development partners.
Most of the times, we have ignored the fact “money” does not grow on trees in their countries. Somebody pays tax. Not everyone that pays tax that side of the world is a tycoon. Often they are average folks that are also struggling. They are either middle income or poor, and possibly no different from some folks here. I donâ€™t think it is fair for their tax to find its way into somebodyâ€™s pocket. If we think of the K187 million education scam, the Land Rover deal, National Id sour deal among others, as clear examples of abuse, development partners have all reasons to attach tough conditions. Some of their funds go direct into the budget and their tough conditions are no different from a parent dealing with a naughty child that spends college tuition on beer. It is to ensure that resources are used efficiently to benefit all citizens in equal measure, if not, benefit more, the poorest.
Has foreign aid worked?
The literature is vast on whether aid works, but we can consider common wisdom and make our judgements. Malawi has been a recipient of aid since independence and our poverty levels are well documented. The country ranks among the poorest of the world. Income inequalities persist, pathologically distasteful. Our battles on the quota system are proof that people still struggle to access college education 48 years after independence. Incomes have remained stagnant and the average farmer has had to rely on fertiliser starter packs or subsidies, a conduit for corruption. Life expectancy remains low and hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with basic medical cases. Infant mortality rates remain high. A majority of the people in the country do not have access to piped water. Most homes are still merely mud huts without electricity. The average family greatly struggles to put food on the table and to educate their children.
Has foreign aid worked? Well, the indicators tell a story on how we can make inferences. After 48 years of independence and a huge debt relief, a sick snailâ€™s pace seems to characterise development. Being a rich politician because a person next door is poor and deriving some satisfaction is now a norm. It is candidly illustrated in politicians dishing out alms/money, public funds to be precise, for petty electioneering instead of investing in the right services that create skills and jobs.
Abuse of public resources and aid screws
Financial resources if properly put to use can work wonders to move Malawi out of its current mess. The famed zero-deficit budget was crafted out of anger after development partners tightened aid taps. Tightening of aid taps generally has nothing to do with the average Malawian for sure. If we generated enough revenue from domestic sources to match foreign aid lost, nothing would change if key governance issues are not fixed with strong political will they deserve. The level of abuse of public resources and corruption has been worrying for many years. That is the message our development partners are sending. Aid will only work in an environment where public officials, elected or not, are truthfully held to account for any abuse of public resources. It applies to all types of funds whether foreign loans, aid or internally generated.
Repositioning the country towards financial independence is a brilliant idea. If key governance institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Malawi Police Service, the Auditor Generalâ€™s Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions, among others are stifled and made ineffective, we can as well resign to some fate and embrace the status quo for some years. We canâ€™t play a hard nationalist banter on foreign taxpayersâ€™ money and deflect corruption, a serial problem, using gay rights as excuse. Corruption is the real thing. Tales of gay rights are often blown out of proportion. Most countries have criminalised homosexuality, but are tough on corruption as well. Even if we were to own 100 percent of Kayelekera, Kanyika mines or some oil under the beautiful lake, the level of wanton abuse of public resources remains a big cancer to poverty reduction.