News that the Government of Malawi is (allegedly) expelling the British High Commissioner from the country in response to a leaked memo expressing dissatisfaction with the Governance situation there only serves to further emphasise the decline of Malawi as a donor darling. I lived and worked in Malawi for almost four years and retain an of enormous amount of affection for it: it‚Äôs one of the most beautiful places in the world and populated by some of the best people I‚Äôve known. This being the case, I‚Äôve been following its progress closely since I left. The changes in Malawi demonstrate the extremely important role of conflict in the domestic political process and relative powerlessness of donors.
When I left Malawi, I was full of optimism: elections (free, fair and gracefully conceded by the losing party) were about to be held; the economy was in it‚Äôs strongest state in years; aid was increasing almost exponentially, while we were ever moving closer to best practices in aid management and transparency; and the Government was committed to poverty reduction and economic growth. Since then, however, things have gone south quickly. The re-elected President, Bingu wa Mutharika, began to take on increasingly authoritarian tendencies; he sacked and removed many of the most competent Ministers (most notably Malawi‚Äôs excellent ex-Minister of Finance Goodall Gondwe) and reshuffled the Principal Secretaries, with many new appointees having strong ties to the President. This trend was only emphasised when the President at one point took on the same portfolio of Ministries as Dr. Hastings Banda, Malawi‚Äôs long-time dictator. He began to call himself ‚ÄėNgwazi‚Äô (hero), which was the name given to Banda. He even had the national flag redesigned: where before Malawi was represented by a rising sun, it is now fully risen, presumably in gratitude to the new regime.
The effects were eventually felt in Government policy. Progress on Governance issues began to reverse, and poor performance against the IMF programme in country led to a freeze on general budget support (since lifted by most donors), in turn causing a foreign exchange shortage which led to a situation of petrol scarcity which continues to date. The Government also began to exert malign influence on the universities, forbidding the discussion of certain topics by lecturers, and on civil society, by imposing financial requirements for permission to demonstrate. These changes are not simply academic ‚Äď they are affecting people‚Äôs lives.
What‚Äôs most remarkable about these changes is the role of the Government under Mutharika. Matt has posted before about Malawi‚Äôs performance on inflation, crediting the IMF‚Äôs PRGF programme for helping kick start this improvement. This is definitely accurate, but there‚Äôs no doubt that the serious effort and political will of Bingu‚Äôs first Government played a massive role in ensuring that expenditure was reined in, and that all the IMF targets were taken seriously. Under Mutharika, corruption cases were brought to bear against various members of the previous Government, too. These may have been partly political, but it‚Äôs clear that they were also aimed at people who had stolen vast sums in the past ‚Äď establishing an extremely important precedent for Malawi. The Government also put serious effort into improving the budgeting system and implementing and monitoring a national development strategy. So what changed?
In my opinion, the single biggest factor in Malawi‚Äôs turnaround has been the change in the security of Mutharika‚Äôs position. When he was first elected in 2004, Mutharika was a member of the UDF party. However, once in office, he left this party and created his own, the DPP, inducing a number of MPs to cross the floor and join the DPP from UDF and other parties. In response, the UDF made the claim that this was illegal citing a vaguely worded article of the Constitution ‚Äď Section 65 ‚Äď as rendering illegal any attempt to cross the floor. The DPP vigourously disputed this claim, but avoided any attempt to resolve it through the courts, because if the ruling had gone against them, they would have all lose their seats and had to stand for re-election, leaving the President isolated.
What this meant was that every time Mutharika‚Äôs Government wanted to pass anything controversial, be it a National Budget, or loan agreement or a new bill, the opposition could grind Parliament to a halt by refusing to vote until Section 65 was resolved. As a result, the Government had to work very hard to make sure that every step it took was justifiable in the public eye, and could be clearly explained in rational terms ‚Äď any attempt to delay using Section 65 would then encounter popular resistance, as happened more than once when Budget delays led to demonstrations and scuffles near Parliament.