Recently, the World Bank suggested that power tariff in this country be revised upwards so that service providers can gain the capacity to expand the power sector.
This is a suggestion that made a lot of financial sense, from a capitalist perspective, but was met with a great deal of negativity by local commentators.
The Consumers Association of Malawi, for example, did not hide its displeasure at the World Bank’s suggestion, arguing Malawians could not afford a hike in the power tariff when they were already grappling with high fuel prices and sky-rocketing prices of basics such as soap and cooking oil.
What makes sense in one situation may not necessarily make sense in another situation.
The mathematics and the economics behind the World Bank’s suggestion may be correct, but would not be applicable to our situation.
What is important in Malawi is to migrate most Malawians from poverty they find themselves in to some semblance of financial stability. Only then can we start talking about implementing decisions that make capitalist sense.
Our development model should not be the West, where capitalism principles are deeply entrenched, and have been there for hundreds of years. Rather, let us turn to the East, to China, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Brazil where we will be able to get models that are close to our own situation.
One issue that tore the 1964 Cabinet was whether Malawians should be made to pay for medical services in public facilities. A payment of 3 pence (tickey), now worth about K2.75, had been proposed.
A heated debate ensued within the Cabinet with the youthful ministers vehemently opposing it whereas the older prime minister Banda insisted it should be introduced. The rest is history, but it showed how difficult it would be to implement purely capitalistic ideologies in an economy such as ours.
Poll tax was a perennial problem to many of our men. They devised ways of running away from tax enforcers, sometimes by jumping over high fences. It was discovered that the cost of enforcing poll tax compliance was more than the amount collected in the exercise. So, poll tax regime was abandoned.
We have for decades tried to copy the techniques that have worked in the West hoping they would work here and bring about the most sought after development.
Many of them simply have not worked because our situation is so different from that in Western countries. People would not spend sleepless nights over poll tax in the West, for example. This is so because most of them earn money which, by our standards, is handsome.
In my youth at Nkhoma Mission there were several mentally disturbed people who used to frequently visit the institution. One of them was called Alene. Alene had mastered the art of begging. He would visit people’s homes while singing and banging hoe heads against each other.
People knew well ahead of his arrival and would prepare by putting together a few food items or cash to give him.
It was rumoured Alene was faking insanity to avoid being pestered by poll tax enforcers. When you engaged him intensely, it was quite clear that he was indeed of a sound mind.
The models we should adopt are those that are poor-friendly. Poverty is probably our biggest single problem and must be dealt with at every opportunity. But adopting Western models has clearly not helped us.
We need to study how our colleagues, those who were in a similar situation as us not too long ago, to discover how they pulled themselves out of poverty.
Whatever models we adopt should be modified to suit our local conditions rather than applying them wholesale. In economics, ‘one size fits all’ rarely works. Each country is unique and needs to develop unique solutions to its problems even though such solutions might be based on borrowed models.
True to the spirit of this column, I would like to suggest that we should always search within our people, our culture and our history so that we are able to develop and implement suitable, home-made solutions to our problems. When he went out to confront the Philistine giant, Goliath, the biblical David refused to wear armoury gear. He preferred instead to wear what he had always worn, because he knew that he would be more comfortable in his clothes than in the borrowed ones. We will be comfortable with models from countries that resemble us. n