In the Weekend Nation of December 5 2015 on the business page, we read that Malawi inequality soared. This news item is based on a report issued by Oxfam which states that the gap between the country’s poor and rich people is widening. The Economics Association of Malawi (Ecama) is said to have given a wake-up call to the government.
When we comment on mere extracts from a report we face the possibility that we are commenting on incomplete information.
Did those who gave a ‘wake-up warning’ suggest to government what measures it should take to breach the gap? The observation that there is a tendency for the poor to get poorer at the very time that the rich get richer is déjà vu. We have heard and read of it before.
This observation has been noted not only within developing countries themselves, but also between developing and developed countries. The cynics have said that while in developed countries people accumulate more riches in developing countries they beget more children.
What a government can do to narrow the gap between rich and the poor at any time depends on the level of development or industrialisation that has already taken place. Where a country is highly industrialised government can impose super taxes on corporations and well-paid executives. The tax proceeds can then be spent on improving the health educational and other social services for the poor.
Suppose the country is underdeveloped like Malawi, how much tax revenue can government raise which it can use to narrow the gap between rich and the poor? If it raises too high on the few existing companies, it is likely to kill the incentive for investors to remain in the country or to come to it.
Social welfare services in the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) differ a good deal because of the philosophies behind them. In the US, people are highly individualistic. They say it is up to everyone to make use of the equal opportunities that exist to try and become wealthy; those who are too poor are blamed for alleged irresponsible behavior such as laziness, drunkenness, drug abuse and so on. Public support for such people is reluctantly advocated.
In the EU, the poor are seen to be victims of circumstances such as economic recessions and depressions as well as physical disabilities. Social security services are more liberally provided.
What the government here must do to breach the gap between the rich and poor will depend on whether we attach any responsibilities to the poor for their own upliftment. It will also depend on whether we will approach the gap from the reproduction or consumption side.
If we approach the gap from the consumption side we might achieve what Winston Churchill called the equal sharing of misery because there is little wealth to distribute in the country. There are more mouth than soup bowls. The problem should be approached from the production side, the poor must be made more productive.
They must be given the opportunity to work. When Tanzania’s first president Julius Mwalimu Nyerere launched the Tanganyika African National Union (Tanu), he coined the slogan uhuru na kazi (freedom and work) meaning that as a free people the citizens must accept the responsibility to work for their living. The slogan was echoed at all political rallies. But one day a man standing near me retorted: “Uhuru na kazi, lakini kazi iko wapi?” (freedom and work, but where is work? He had been in Dar es Salaam for a year without a job.
To get out of dire poverty one must have a decent job or a prosperous business. Is it the duty of government to find him a job or for himself to look for it? Is it the duty of the government to put him in a business?
In trying to find a solution to the economic inequality both the government and the people must be cognizant of their roles. The wealth of the nation is largely realised by the people themselves under the aegis of the government. It is not up to the government exclusively to tackle the gap between the rich and poor.
Leaders should follow the example of Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda who used to appeal to the people to work hard in the fields or in any other work place.
Since we got the multi-party dispensation, political parties frequently say we are going to do for you this and that if you vote for us. They hardly appeal to the people to be more industrious and frugal so as to make themselves self supporting, ultimately how wealthy a country is depends on how individuals and corporate bodies dedicate themselves to work. n