Malawi has been an important partner country for Norway since 1996. The Norwegian government has committed itself to assist development efforts done by the Malawian government, and the two countries enjoy a close relationship. EPHRAIM MUNTHALI engages Kikkan Haugen, Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi on progress so far made on extensive development assistance Norway offers to the country.
Having been in Malawi for some time now, what would you consider being the most important economic and political developments?
I am now almost half way in my four-year in Malawi. Most of us who follow the development of this country closely, will agree that development in Malawi gives a mixed picture. The country is a peaceful and stable democracy with a lot of international goodwill and support. Good progress is made in areas like child mortality and fertility rates. Important legislation for reform is being adopted by Parliament. Despite this, Malawi remains one of the very poorest countries of the world and 39 percent of the population will be in need of food assistance this agricultural season. I think all of us who love Malawi and wish the best for the country and its people will agree that this is simply not good enough.
In terms of programming for the sectors you have been supporting through various funding modalities, what lessons have you learnt?
Norway is the third biggest bilateral partner in Malawi and a partner that tries to uphold the Paris principles for good aid. At the same time, we need to ensure that our investments in development in Malawi reach the intended beneficiaries and the intended results. I think what we do in the health sector sets an important example. Together with other partners, we support Government strategies, budgets and institutions. But we do so with strengthened control mechanisms to ensure that money is spent according to agreements and expected results are delivered. This is a very practical example of doing things differently in a situation where management structures are not up the standards we all should expect. A cash based humanitarian response, which minimises corruption and supports local markets, is a another example of doing things differently.
Some argue that Malawians enjoy a relatively higher human rights situation compared to most African countries, do you feel the same? Where does Malawi need to improve?
In Malawi’s second UPR hearing in Geneva in May last year, Malawi was recognised by the international community for progress in several areas. Freedom of expression and freedom of the media were among these. Norway, along other countries, at the same time noted challenges related to economic rights caused by poverty and the rights of minorities, including people living with albinism and sexual minorities. Access to speedy justice would be another concern, and it is for instance a concern that those responsible for the murder of ACB [Anti-Corruption Bureau] official Issa Njauju have not been brought to justice. The human rights situation in prisons in Malawi is very challenging, as I have observed on several occasions myself. This is mainly due to overcrowding. A group of organisations with MSF in lead has suggested how overcrowding can be alleviated by releasing prisoners who do not need or should not be in prison. These suggestions seem very sensible, and I would encourage the government to pursue them.
As a Malawian, I get the sense that our leaders—both technocrats/senior civil servants and politicians—promise so much, but deliver so little. What is your own view?
In any political system of the world there is a divide between political promises and what is delivered. The problem in Malawi is that the divide is too big. This undermines the confidence people have in the leadership and institutions of the country. In my mind, Malawi has plenty of strategies and policies, but needs to put more emphasis on implementing what has been decided. To move Malawi out of the poverty trap, some issues should be of key concern. Improving fiscal management, stabilising the economy and curbing corruption would be one. Creating an enabling environment for the private sector and foreign investment, that actually leads to increased investments, would be another. I also believe that Malawi can break out of the cycle of humanitarian needs by making the agricultural sector the engine for economic growth. Better policies and more room for the private sector should be part of that, as should reform of ADMARC be. Its operations in regulating the market should be more transparent and predictable and it should be much more active in being on the market early after harvest to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price for their produce.
At the moment we have Public Service Reforms (PSR), how much change has you seen in your stay? Do you see Malawi different from what it has been sometime into the near future? What will make that change possible?
Important reforms have been identified, and improvement in public finance management and the establishment of one-stop centers are examples of reforms taking place. I am unsure if a true reform of the public sector that will benefit ordinary Malawians is actually taking place. I meet many reform minded and dedicated Malawians, but also a system where the resistance to change, particularly if change challenges your own pocket, seems to be very strong. In a situation where resources are so scarce, it is of utmost importance that the right priorities are made and that political leaders lead by example in this respect. I am sure I was not the only one who was somewhat saddened when members of Parliament seemed to be more concerned with their own benefits than the crisis the country is in the middle of. I think it also would be wise to use a bigger share of public resources towards production rather than consumption.
I will take, for example, the land bills that were in Parliament last week. What is your general position on their objectives? Do you see the objectives are clearly spelt out?
There is plenty of international research evidencing that land ownership is a key factor in a country’s development. Land ownership will inspire long term thinking and investment and a title deed can be used to insure financing that can make your investment grow. This is good both at a personal level and at a national level. I would like to commend the Government on the land bills that have now been passed by Parliament. The challenge now is to sensitise stakeholders on the reforms to ensure that they are implemented efficiently.
One of the reasons the land issue is so sensitive is because Malawi’s population is rising fast and land is becoming increasingly insufficient to support more people. What policy choices do you believe the Malawi Government has over such a dilemma?
Population growth is one of the biggest challenges Malawi faces. The population grows by more than half a million people every year, and will reach 50 million in 2050 if nothing is done. How is Malawi going to sustain a population of 50 million when there are already big problems in feeding a population of 17 million? I believe family planning is the key. The recent data shown in the Health and Demographic Survey are promising in this respect. Fertility rates have fallen by 30 percent since 2010 and 60 percent of married women now use modern forms of contraception. These developments need to be sustained, and I would like to see population growth being much higher on the political agenda in Malawi.
What is your position on whether or not Malawi’s anti-corruption drive is effective enough to bring the results needed to take this country forward?
I believe that this Government is sincere in its fight against corruption. Whether it is effective enough, remains to be seen. I am personally appalled by the culture of greed and corruption that seems to be prevalent in parts of the elites of this country. In a situation where resources are so scarce and the majority of Malawians are very poor, a reality where the rich steal from the poor is very hard to accept. I commend the efforts of Government to strengthen fiscal management and pursue Cashgate, but would like to see a situation where also political friends and allies are put under scrutiny. That would set an example of the real will to get to roots of corruption in Malawi.