When Bakili Muluzi started going around the country with matches box, iron sheets and bars of maluwa soap to argue against high economic growth pundits condemned him.
Their argument being that he had little understanding of inflation. Others argued Muluzi could have also gone to the rallies showcasing 50 kilogramme (kg) bags of fertiliser given “cheaper prices” apparently due to the fertiliser subsidy. True, but cheap reasoning all together. It is all at tax-payer’s expense. Better call it voodoo economics. However, a certain level of sense is apparent particularly if one clearly articulates the limits of economic growth.
During Bingu wa Mutharika’s reign, Malawi’s economic growth was touted as a success story by the international community. That such a hungry and least developed country was the second fastest growing economy in the world was thrilling. Not only does it make most of us think great of our country and its future, but possibly with anticipation of an environment awash with opportunities.
Is it real? Probably yes, but with some heavy headed doubting Thomases. Questions still abound whether our growth is pro-poor and henceforth barefeet Malawians in Thundubike (Mzimba), Mwalasi (Machinga) or Makiyoni (Salima) can collaborate this much touted high growth rates. This is where politicians like Muluzi often come in and display merchandise using chicken economics to gain political mileage. But behind such reasoning, there is a genuine and hidden story that puts in question whether economic growth as measured by change in gross domestic product (GDP) results in improved quality of life.
Amid the high level of growth, generated by maize production our vulnerabilities were exposed. Maize did not generate any revenue as most of it was just consumed by households and not traded across the border in a manner that boosts the foreign reserves of the country. Why is our import cover perpetually under two months? Reports of hunger last year were rife and government had to swallow its pride and ban maize exports. Such decisions were made in a fast growing economy putting in doubt the efficacy of growth generated through what I term a maize subsidy. Would a high growth economy ban exports? I have my founded doubts.
Turn to the obituary pages of daily papers and see the many young faces that have prematurely gone. Their ages average under 35. And then get into a car or a bus and drive on the main roads linking the cities and the likelihood of bumping into a truck fishing hazards carrying a dead body are high.
Apparently, this is if you live in the cities, but in the rural areas the trend is the same except that they carry the dead bodies in an ox-cart. Does this story link up well with a fast growing economy? It is a health crisis? An emergency case in Ntchenachena, Chididi and Mposa are a death sentence though the economy is growing.
There is a health and education crisis in this country. Rich folks go to those elite facilities to access health services and education for their families. Over 80 per cent of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas whose health centres are often manned by an enrolled nurse without adequate medication. Distances to such facilities plus the state of rural roads complicate the situation. I am not being sadistic, but health services are equally bad as education especially in the rural areas. Unfortunately, this is where the majority of our people live and resigned to a life that offers no hope and future.
Global poverty according to the World Bank is due to China’s reducing hardship through pr0-poor growth. Similar trends have happened in other parts of South East Asia such as Malaysia and South Korea. Setting the pace to development is targeting the majority of the population that is poor. This would perhaps work in Malawi.
Such a story does not end here as my critics will obviously argue that the targeted inputs subsidy is one such approach. Not sure whether this is correct given the major anomalies. I will not dwell on this one. But to any reader of economic development, human capital is an indispensable source of growth as it offers those with a good education to better opportunities. By human capital I mean a workforce that is well educated.
Malawi’s growth is coming with unskilled farmers who rely on a fertiliser subsidy and the mercy of rains using a wooden hoe since the Iron Age. What else part from farming will a typical peasant do? Their education is limited, life is hopeless and we keep on reproducing as evidenced in the ballooning population growth rate of 2.6 percent. Yet despite such warnings, Malawi has four government owned Technical Colleges of Mzuzu, Lilongwe, Soche and Salima plus a few others that belong to the churches. Where will all these young people go to? Most of them are getting driving licenses in the hope of becoming minibus drivers via the “touting or callboy” channel. Two public universities with an annual intake of under 2 000 for over 15 000 eligible young people. What is the role of education planning?
Somehow, I have a belief that our growth is not pro-poor and the majority of the folks are missing out. There is no need for evidence but I can cite the rise in social ills as a major indicator of the limited benefits of our high economic growth.
Economic growth to me does not guarantee success if the majority of a vulnerable population are left behind. Otherwise we will still have various versions of Bakili Muluzi going around with a few merchandise preaching voodoo economics. n