2020 has been a year most would like to forget. While more than 77 million people have been infected by Covid-19, over 1.7 million people have lost their lives.
All our lives have been disrupted and our economies have taken a beating. It is amidst such terrible news that I was delighted to read that Malawi is The Economist magazine’s country of the year for “reviving democracy in an authoritarian region”.
Malawi’s development record in the past couple of decades is a mixed bag. There has been a reduction of child mortality, improvements in maternal health and increased life expectancy at birth. Progress has also been achieved in relation to combating HIV and Aids, malaria and other diseases.
These achievements against great odds must be better acknowledged. But there is also considerable talk of the “Malawi paradox”. Despite peace, relative political stability and consistent support for democracy, a majority of the country’s population has not witnessed radical improvement in their living standards.
And Malawi consistently figures at the bottom of the list of countries ranked on human development and perceptions of corruption.
The narrative of Malawi in international discussions has, for far too long, been negative. It has frequently been described not just as “one of the poorest countries in the world” but also where there is little hope of change. I am delighted that this narrative is finally changing and Malawians themselves are responsible for this turnaround.
The numerous protests organised throughout the country since 2019 have consolidated democracy in the country and signalled to Malawi’s leaders as well as to the international community that citizens are ready to hold individuals and institutions to account for glaring failures.
Moreover, 2020 also proved that Malawian institutions are not as fragile and susceptible to political interference as many had believed.
The judiciary, which was facing considerable political pressure, not only conducted itself admirably but also offered a bold verdict. I was also impressed with the ability of Malawian institutions to conduct a credible election under very challenging circumstances.
The people of Malawi have been patient for a long time. While they have now stood up for democracy, there is a hunger for rapid change. The country’s leaders must formulate bold and yet realistic policies and ensure effective communication of their plans so that citizens are kept in the loop.
The key will be to effectively execute short-term policies while planning for the long-run. For the time being, however, let us celebrate the fact that while democracy regressed in 80 countries between the start of the Covid pandemic and the month of September, the only place where it improved was Malawi.