Not only the state will bleed

There wasn’t much for me to do when I first joined the Budget Division of Malawi’s Ministry of Finance back in 2006. My particular position had been vacant for almost a year, so it took a bit of time before the acting budget director grew accustomed enough to start diverting work my way. One of the very first things I worked on was an attempt to reconcile the difference between expenditure ceilings set by my department and actual reports of expenditure from the Accountant General’s department.

What complicated this process was the fact that the Accountant General had recently adopted an Integrated Financial Management System (IFMIS), essentially a comprehensive software platform for approving and tracking expenditure. A lot of promises came with IFMIS – the ability to track expenditure in real time and keep a tight leash on expenditure by line ministries. Yet, when I had arrived, the budget department had yet to fully adopt the platform, meaning that our (often fairly specific) budget ceilings had to be manually reconciled with IFMIS-generated expenditure reports.

I doubt that the budget director seriously believed that this greenhorn civil servant was really going to accomplish much with this work and probably saw the task as something to keep me busy while I grew more accustomed to my environment. Even so, I quickly noticed that IFMIS-generated reports seriously deviated from what was being approved by the Budget Division, sometimes even showing expenditure which was above and beyond what had been mandated by our department.

At my director’s prompting, I visited the relevant department at the Account General’s to request more detailed reports from IFMIS. The likely culprit was some of data problem, and I was curious to get to the bottom of it, seeing the whole exercise as a problem with some sort of technical solution. While the civil servants I spoke to at the AG were friendly enough and agreed to send me reports, upon my return to the Ministry of Finance it was later made clear to me that the AG wasn’t too fond of this unknown fresh-faced mzungu making random requests. Not long after, more pressing work diverted my attention, and this particular issue faded into the background.

Later, our own department grappled with the adoption of IFMIS. While technological solutions are frequently touted as solutions to institutional problems (this platform will eliminate corruption!), my experience was that without some basic level of capacity in place, even the most advanced platform was doomed to fail. Hence, if two government ministries can’t keep their budget tallies synchronised in Excel, they are unlikely to be able to get a more complex `black box’ system to work properly.  This is problematic, because when finance systems don’t work properly, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between corruption and incompetence.* My feeling at the time that the discrepancies between the AG’s expenditure records were due to the latter, even though I heard the occasional, unsubstantiated whisper that someone at the AG was stealing money.

This was surprising to me, as there had been a fairly visible crack down on corruption and leakage during the first term of then-president Bingu wa Mutharika. However, it was widely recognized that during his second, more tumultuous term (which began after I had left the country), government systems became more porous and corruption become more common.

One might have expected things to improve upon Mutharika’s sudden death and the ascension of the pragmatic Joyce Banda to the presidency. Yet despite wowing a lot of donors and even some skeptics – including yours truly – her government seems to have inherited many of its predecessors failings: a recent scandal has broken out over implications that there has been substantial theft by employees of the Accountant General’s department, who exploited loopholes in IFMIS to siphon off money.

We tend to lump all dodgy dealings into the broad category of corruption, but there is a clear difference between institutionalised corruption, where political leaders divert resources towards their own benefit, and the kind of rampant theft which goes on when you have a leader who either is unaware of or cannot control corrupt practices. Banda’s situation clearly falls in the latter – given that she has, until very recently, ruled over cabinet  of former members of Mutharika’s party as well as the opposition – she has always been in a precarious position and thus unable to fully keep everyone in her government in line.

The scandal hasn’t been completely bloodless. The recently-appointed director of the Budget Division, Paul Mphwiyo, was nearly shot to death following his attempts to close the loopholes leading to theft of public resources. I knew Paul during my time in Malawi: he was serving as an assistant budget director when I was working for the Ministry of Finance, although we didn’t often work closely together. Let’s hope he recovers quickly and his assailants are eventually apprehended, although I have my doubts about the latter.

For those wanting to keep tabs on the scandal, Kim Yi Dionne remains an excellent source for recent Malawi news and analysis.

 

*This confusion can be easily exploited.

Update: This post got a little more attention than I thought it would, so just wanted to add a little addendum.

I want to be cautious about drawing too many conclusions from my (very brief) interaction with the AG’s system – the Cashgate scandal is another animal entirely. In weighing the corruption or incompetence possibilities, it’s highly likely that my situation fell in the latter. I just felt it was worth noting that these things aren’t always clear, and that there was a bit of an administrative wall between the Account General’s Office and the Budget Division of the Ministry of Finance (they were, at least when I was there, separate `votes’ on the cabinet and in separate buildings.) Also, for the sake of my former department, I want to make it clear that this thing at least seems to be entirely of the AG’s making, and I saw nothing in the Budget Division during my time there that suggested any wrongdoing of this sort.

In which Malawi gives Madonna a spinning roundhouse kick

norris_malawi

So Malawi was graced by another visit from Madonna recently. Somewhat miffed that she hadn’t received an invitation to go meet with President Joyce Banda, she wrote an overly-personal message to Banda (“Dear Joyce”) to ask if they could meet. To slightly complicate things further, the head representative of Madonna’s charity went after the President’s sister (who used to work for the Raising Malawi) and complained that the Material Girl wasn’t getting the right treatment from the government:

Madonna can continue her work here [even] if the politicians don’t want to welcome her because her work is all about the children who are here. The politicians can stay. Even donors are also surprised that government is treating Madonna like this when she is the biggest private donor in the country

In response, the Malawian government released an 11-point passive-aggressive smackdown. You can read the whole thing here, but one particular point stood out as being awesome and seriously bad ass:

7. If the argument is that because she is an internationally renowned star, and, therefore, Madonna believes she deserved to be treated differently from other visiting foreigners, it is worth making her aware that Malawi has hosted many international stars, including Chuck Norris, Bono, David James, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville who have never demanded state attention or decorum despite their equally dazzling stature. [Emphasis added]

Boom.

Hat tip to Kim Yi Dionne at haba na haba, who has covered both Madonna’s PR gaffs and the government response.

norris_poverty

 

How policies end: not with a bang, but a whimper

Masimba Tafirenyika describes how dire the food security situation in Malawi has become:

Once again Malawi finds itself in a tight spot. A food crisis set off by erratic rains, rising food prices and economic hardships is slowly unfolding. For the first time in several years, the country’s ability to feed its citizens is at risk. Sadly and unexpectedly, Malawi has lost its hard-earned status as an agricultural success story — it used to produce enough maize for its people to eat and still provide a surplus to neighbours. Many are now wondering what went wrong and whether there could be lessons for other African countries.

More than 1.63 million people, or 11 per cent of the population, are facing severe food shortages, according to the World Food Programme, a UN relief agency. Malawi needed $30 million to the end of 2012 to cover the shortfall.

As Tafirenyika hints, this stands in stark contrast to reporting on Malawi over the past few years, where it was heralded as a shining example of how to tackle food security. Five years, ago Celia Dugger wrote in the NYT how the country’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, despite the protests of many, “ignored the experts” and subsequently dealt with the country’s hunger problems by drastically scaling up its fertiliser subsidy programme. Malawi subsequently enjoyed a spate of bumper harvests and many were quick to tout the large-scale subsidisation as being both a success and worth of replication in other countries. Most notable was the support of Jeffrey Sachs, who’s incessant belief that the fertiliser subsidisation was a policy holy grail led him to write an oddly-appreciative obituary for Mutharika, who died at the end of a thuggish, repressive and disastrous second term in office.

Meanwhile, hunger returns to Malawi, but we have not yet established a convincing narrative. Many economists (including a few on this blog) have pointed out, time and time again, that the fertiliser subsidy programme was fraught with pitfalls, both political and practical. While the recent crisis is probably too complex to fully substantiate these concerns, now would be an appropriate time for the fertiliser advocates to turn their attention to the food situation in Malawi, and begin to ask why. Otherwise, we risk touting a policy that might actually have been a complete failure, or at the very least lacked the sort of robustness that anti-hunger policies desperately need.

It’s good to be the president

history

Since the unexpected death of Bingu wa Mutharika, I’ve been rather hopeful for Malawi. While Mutharika had an incredibly promising start, his second term was marred with paranoia, aggression and growing signs of dynasty-building and patronage politics. Thanks to a heart attack, we were graced with Joyce Banda, the country’s first female president, who appears to be both modest and incredibly pragmatic, while naturally eschewing the big bwana syndrome while has characterized so much of Malawian politics.

Banda’s sudden appearance on the global scene has excited a lot of people. Perhaps unfairly, many consider her to be Malawi’s best chance of rising above the seemingly-endless cycle of dashed expectations. The Guardian recently ran a behind-the-scenes piece on her which, while captivating and well done, only serves to further entrench these hopes.

To a large extent I share these expectations, and was happy to hear that Banda had decided to sell off the presidential jet and cut the presidential salary to less than what an Oxford post-doc makes in a year. Then I chatted to my mother the other day, who pointed out to me that while watching a BBC show on the posh London hotel Claridge’s, she had spotted Ms. Banda’s husband, having booked for 11 nights with his entourage of fifteen people (it happens at about the 11 minute mark here). Indeed, it appears that Ms. Banda also stayed at Claridge’s during her first state visit to the UK, during which she made the announcement about selling off her jet. While rates for a basic room at Claridges are roughly £400, its suites (which the programme suggests the Bandas stayed in) can be as expensive as £3,000 a night. The doorman proudly quips “it is Mr. President,” referring to Joyce Banda’s husband, noting he had been to Claridges before.

Perhaps the Banda’s get a special a discount, or the donors ponied up the cash for their London stay, or perhaps Richard Banda has a good pension from serving as Malawi’s Chief Justice. Maybe it’s reasonable to expect heads of state to enjoy a little luxury. Still, it’s awfully good to be the president (or at least the president’s husband).

In which Malawi’s government decides to ignore the constitution

Update: despite earlier signs that the Government would try and block her constitutionally-mandated succession, Joyce Banda has been sworn in as the new president of Malawi, so crisis averted (well, for now). 

It has been over a day since Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a heart attack, and while the Government has still refused to release official confirmation that he has died, the public instead received a chilling indication that Mutharika’s regime will not go out without a fight.

As Kim Yi Dionne pointed out yesterday Malawi’s constitution clearly specifies that the Vice President is first in line for succession in the event that the president dies or is incapacitated. Malawi’s VP, Joyce Banda fell out of favor with the ruling party DPP some time ago, making the prospect of her assuming power unpalatable for Mutharika and the rest of the president’s Cabinet

For a long time the Government remained silent, both on the state of Bingu’s health (despite an alarming number of reports that he is dead, perhaps even before he made it to the hospital) and on the matter of his succession. This has made everyone uneasy – stalling on the Government’s part suggests that they are planning an strategy to block Banda’s succession. Perhaps to put a little bit of pressure on the Government to behave, both the British and American governments announced that they expected Banda to assume the office ASAP.

That silence was broken today when a subset of the cabinet, led by Information Minister and all-around-nefarious-person Patricia Kaliati, announced that Joyce Banda was ineligible due to her behavior while in office (video here – hat tip to Kim), including starting her own political party (which she did after she was thrown out by Mutharika). While they did not announce who the actual successor would be and would not reveal any information about Bingu wa Mutharika himself, this is a clear indication that the Government plans to circumvent the constitution.

It’s getting late in Denmark, so I’ll just offer a few thoughts before signing off:

Normally, I am wary of donors getting to involved in the decisions of recipient governments which are democratically elected, for fear that donor commitments will crowd out the natural accountability generated at the polls. This is quite different – we have a government which is very clearly going to choose to abandon its democratic principles and the international community might have the ability to make that decision too painful to bear.

Here are some options: donors could immediately and credibly rally behind Joyce Banda, not necessarily because she is the best candidate for president, but because Malawi’s constitution makes it clear that she is is the successor. Credible support can come in the form of donor dollars – no government which does not respect this succession should receive aid – the aim should be to make the decision very, very stark for the DPP. If this was combined with the threat of an odious debt sanction – where no new contracts signed by the Government will be enforced in courts, the squeeze might be even tighter.

What donors should not do is fall back on simple rhetoric about accountability. It has to be a clear choice – money flows if Banda succeeds. Money stops if she doesn’t. For it to be credible, donors need to be prepared to walk away – I fear that they won’t be.

Malawi’s president and the art of diplomacy

From the BBC:

Mr Mutharika said he has intelligence reports that some Western donor nations were working with local non-governmental groups (NGOs) to hold street demonstrations and vigils against his rule.

“I will not accept this nonsense any more,” Mr Mutharika said as he opened a road in his home tea-growing district of Thyolo in southern Malawi.

“If donors say this is not democracy, to hell with you… yes, I’m using that word, tell them to go to hell,” he said on Sunday.

In all seriousness, the media and donors often fail to acknowledge that local NGOs are often headed by members of the opposition or those with close ties to it. While Mutharika’s response is absurdly vitriolic, if outside forces are supporting these NGOs then his concerns aren’t entirely unfounded.

Time inconsistency, Malawi edition

In The Guardian on Wednesday, Bingu Mutharika responds to claims he is becoming autocratic:

“What they are trying to do is to draw a parallel between the leadership of Zimbabwe and Malawi. There is no basis for that. That is totally unfair and uncalled for. I have been very democratic.

“From 2004 until now, there is no single political prisoner in a Malawian jail. Is that consistent with the restriction of democracy in this country? We have been very democratic, we have been very patient. I have asked the opposition to come and see me but they refuse.

“It is simply not true. Because if it were true, all these people would have been rounded up. None of them have. They are free now. If indeed Malawi was starting to be a police state, would they still be walking free? That’s the question.”

In the Guardian today:

A prominent critic of Malawi’s president has been jailed in what activists say is the latest sign that the country is turning into a police state.

Ralph Kasambara, a human rights lawyer and former attorney general, has spent three nights behind bars after a fracas at his law practice in Blantyre.

Sentences to ponder, Madonna edition

A few governments have released (mainly inane) statements of condemnation of the government’s crackdown on the urban protests yesterday. Madonna, of all people, released a statement which might accurately capture donor sentiment:

“I am deeply concerned about the violence today in Malawi, especially the devastating impact on Malawi’s children. Malawi must find a peaceful solution to these problems that allows donors to have confidence that their money will be used efficiently.”

Think of all the poor souls out there not meeting their disbursement targets!

Hat tip to haba na haba.

Take me to the riot

The fertilizer subsidy is people!

Tomorrow will see a spate of peaceful demonstrations across Malawi to protest the country’s recent decline in economic governance and Bingu wa Mutharika’s creeping authoritarianism. For an excellent summary of events leading up to these protests, see Kim Yi Dionne’s post here. You’ll find a few pieces on the growing problems in the country on this blog.

There are some reports of pro-DPP (the ruling party) gangs going around and beating up the odd person, and there is some concern that there could be violent intimidation at tomorrow’s rally.

As a former civil servant of the Malawian government, this is all making me a little sad. My thoughts will be with the protesters tomorrow, who have every right to make their case without being bullied by an increasingly stubborn and belligerent government.

As two (now) British-based bloggers, we’ll do our best to bring any new information to light, although Kim is already several steps ahead of us with info on the coming protests.