Bingu wa Mutharika, the President of Malawi, has just remarried, a few years after the death of his first wife, Ethel. The Times is reporting that it was quite a bash. Bingu arrived in true P. Diddy style, emerging from a white Chrysler flown in from South Africa for the occasion wearing a white tuxedo with white gloves, having driven over two roads specially built to take the bride and groom to Civo Stadium for their restrained and tasteful nuptials. The bridal party arrived in a fleet of new Mercedes’, and the whole wedding is alleged to have cost about GBP 2 million, part of which paid for a twenty-eight tier wedding cake.
Apart from the identity of the joker who convinced Bingu that he looked good in his white tux, the big question here is where the money came from. If these were state funds, it is a perfect example of the kind of spending that the fungibility article from the Lancet raised fears of, and which I discussed last week. Is aid money facilitating this kind of opulence? Two things need to be true before we can conclude this. Firstly, it must be the case that the President used state funds for his wedding. This isn’t clear. The Times article offers the following, neither part of which is particularly convincing:
Senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have claimed that the president used public funds for the celebrations, an accusation that the government denies…
The Malawian government’s information minister rejected claims that public money had been used to pay for the wedding. “The [£2m] cost of the wedding has been met by the president himself and friends who wish him well,” he said.
The second issue is whether, even if state funds were used, aid money made any difference. It’s quite possible that the same wedding would have taken place, with the same cost, but with developmental spending suffering even more. If this is the counter-factual, then aid money isn’t facilitating bad spending but mitigating the damage it causes.
With regards to the first issue, as I said in the comments section of Matt’s post on fungibility, audit is where we should be focusing: a comprehensive audit should give us a very good idea of whether or not this money came from Government coffers or Bingu’s personal wealth, together with those of his supporters, some of whom are so fervent I have witnessed them running after his Presidential vehicle waving huge framed posters of him as he disappears from view. I’m going to discuss audit in a bit more depth later this week, but to their credit, the Times does mention the findings of a recent audit of Malawi’s Government expenditure in its article:
A report by the country’s auditor general [showed] that more than £800,000 of public funds had been spent on goods and services between 2003-05 which could not be accounted for.
The drawback? Despite the article being written by a Malawian (Mabvuto Banda, judging by the name, is at least of Malawian heritage), the article fails to point out that the audit reports it refers to relate to a previous Government, that of Bakili Muluzi. Members of this Government have already been investigated and indicted on corruption charges, and further arrests and investigations are always possible.