You wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts

Malawi and Britain are trying to out-crazy each other, probably for strategic reasons.

The Malawian government recently followed through with its threat to expel Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, the British High Commissioner, after a leaked cable revealed that Cochrane-Dyet had critized Bingu wa Mutharika for becoming too authoritarian and intolerant of criticism.

The UK has fired back by kicking out the Malawian ambassador and saying they are currently reviewing their relationship with Malawi (this is coded for, “You’ve been naughty and we’re considering cutting back on your allowance”).

Inevitably, the decision whether or not to cut UK aid to Malawi will result in two opposing camps: one will say that cutting aid will hurt poor people too much. The other will say that if we don’t cut aid, we’re not doing a very good job at disincentivising this kind of behaviour in the long run.

Which side of the line you fall on this issue will probably depend  on your priors about these decisions in general, but let’s think carefully about it for a moment. There are two potential futures, and both of them depend on the strategy that Mutharika’s government is playing.

The first possibility is that Mutharika’s government has already written off its post-colonial relationship with Britain, and is using the Cochrane-Dyet affair* as an excuse to do what it alread would like to do: replace British with Chinese aid. Even if a solution is worked out that keeps the UK in the picture, there is little be done to incentivise Bingu to start behaving, or at the very least abandon his dynastic plans for the presidency after his term finishes.

If we are to believe this scenario, that incentives aren’t binding, then it might be preferable for the Brits just to shrug and continue sending aid, perhaps channelling it around, rather than through the government (which, in itself, would be a great shame given DFID’s historical commitment to budget support).

Of course, there could be another scenario at play: Mutharika could be testing the waters – pushing things a little further than normal to see how far the British will take things.

Many authoritarian leaders already know that some Western donors are hesitant to drop aid for fear of being seen as being too harsh on the poor (especially if there is a track record of success in that country). It is likely that Mutharika wants to see with how much he can get away with.

If this is the case, what the UK might consider doing is making a very strong signal (much stronger than currently) that unless Bingu starts playing ball, it will cut off, or divert, all funding that goes through the government budget. Specifically, the UK could threaten to withdraw all future support for Malawi’s fertilizer subsidy program, which has been the government’s chief mechanism for ensuring electoral success.

The tit-for-tat expulsion of ambassadors and thinly veiled threats are signs that both parties are testing each other. Bingu wants to know if the Brits will call his bluff – the Brits are, very weakly, signaling that they want to call it. Unfortunately, the only ones that really stand to lose as both parties go nuts are ordinary Malawians.

I don’t know which camp I sit in – I haven’t lived in Malawi for several years now, so can only get an approximate sense of the political climate there. Is Bingu really ready to go nuts?

*Which also sounds like an English crime novel.

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