Its not a question of allocating a lions share of the budget to a particular sector, but rather what the money actually does. Does it make Malawi a competitive country to do business, attract foreign direct investment, create jobs and improve welfare of our people? Our planning strategies seem to have been a pre-occupation of the former than the latter. Courtesy of shambolic politics of course. Our lives are still dependent mainly on “wooden hoe” farming.
In the mid 1990’s we took national planning to serious levels with all sorts of strategies but I fail to make sense of them. Nothing much seems to have changed. Sometimes I am tempted to think that the after independence 5 year cycle “Statement of Development Policies” were quite effective planning tool and the political leadership implemented most of the ideals.
I recall, just like many others, airing views to the vision 2020 team that visited Chancellor College sometime. Aspiring young students. One thing that I remember about the vision is to attain a middle income status by 2020. Put it simply, by 2020, Malawi will be at the level of Mauritius, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia and Ghana ( the latter two being latest additions to the group). The per capita incomes will average roughly over a thousand us dollars at purchasing power parity. Are we there yet? Does anyone still talk about the vision? You will be surprised that the document itself is not even easy to find in the planning departments and our political leaders don’t even know of its existence. You will be surprised if ever you had a chat with one of them and ask simple questions. Often you will end up with a sweeping response….”to reduce poverty..” as if they know who the poor are.
Then came the Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy (MPRS), a World Bank obsession with its five pillars. One key thrust was poverty reduction through pro-poor growth. It became the back of national budgeting, atleast the way we were meant to believe, but I have serious doubts whether budget formulation changed. UNIMA still remained closed for long spells. Power outages a norm. Nurses and doctors still fled the country in record numbers. Teachers remained unpaid. These are all growth factors that benefit the common man.
Fast forward. Malawi Growth Strategy that matured into Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) in the last reigns of Bakili Muluzi and then to his successor, the title laden Bingu wa Mutharika. Its resurgence was premised on the inadequacies of the MPRSP to address economic growth and is the new obsession. Do we expect a different outcome?
What sense have we made of all of them and what can we learn seriously? Firstly, I cannot lay blame on technicians in the public service whose sole duty is to translate political ideals into reality. They are great folks mostly under a very tough environment.
Just for once, we can think of our politicians as without any meaningful ideals. It has rendered these strategies somehow meaningless. Examples abound. How does one explain a politician’s mind that defects to PP from DPP even before the late president is buried citing PP great policies? They have not even read PP manifesto, if it exists, and spent much time casting the new found love. Could it be a zero-political ideology, whose objective is nothing other than winning an election?
I believe that in all these strategies we have not got our priorities right. We seem to prioritise everything and in the process, things remain the same. Our political leadership has always been pre-occupied with winning elections as an end rather than a means to formulate policies that lift us from poverty. Maybe it’s a question of one has to be rich simple because the other guy next door is poor? I see that through podium benevolence where tax payers money is handed out to buy votes. It keeps them in a permanent position of being rich with no regard to empowering the underprivileged. No priority or development strategy at all but to win an election. Possibly the JB government will set priorities in a different way , akin to needs of a modern aspiring nation. We might wish to note the Asian tigers of Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and Malaysia path to growth was partly a result of their investment in education.
Middle income countries are characterized by a sound education system at all levels with a lot of school-related investment put to good use. While the free primary education was a good measure, we failed to bring to justice all culprits in the 187million kwacha scheme at Education ministry. Wasted resources. Tales of Unima closures, underfunding of Mzuni, closure of the Polytechnic Board of Governors are some clear examples of how we value education. Unfortunately, it is only an educated population that can effectively participate in the 21st century labour market and compete at global levels. Failure to expand the capacity of technical colleges and a range of programs offered is symbolic how short our strategies have failed to deliver. An educated population is well informed and can make better choices. And when foreign companies fail to recruit locally we cry nationalism and racism. An educated woman for instance can make better choices about fertility and contribute to better health outcomes. Healthy kids too. They can concentrate and spend more time in school than the ill-equipped hospitals.
This is not the end of the story but to say that countries that are fast progressing have attracted a lot of foreign direct investment, not just opening a new mine or exploring for oil. A wide range of reforms. While the MDGS has focused on export le led growth, institutional reforms and infrastructure development remain very poor. It is not just a just of having export led growth, but rather the ability to attract foreign capital to produce for export. To me this does not require a whole bunch of a document but simple decisions that show seriousness about what we really aspire and want to be. A prosperous future for our kids. An energy crisis that seems not to end but has been known for ages is surely a recipe to scare away any potential investor. Unnecessarily bureaucratic procedures to set up businesses and repatriation of profits to foreign countries just scare away any potential capital injections, necessary to induce export led growth. Remember Kenya and Ethiopia airlines ticketing issue? You simply don’t get into foreign markets, a global brand, and experience through global networks is paramount. That is the knowledge foreign capital brings plus the ability to create jobs. But if we live in environments where we even stifle our companies like Nation Publications, for simply telling a story, it scares investors.
To achieve meaningful growth, we need capital and labour, and more important its efficacy. Our education is shambolic and that is where we train our labour force. Similarly, we need a very effective health care system to ensure our labour force remains effective once they choke in the line of duty. Technology and innovative systems of production can easily be absorbed if our workforce is educated and healthy. These are key social functions that government must provide effectively. It will definitely pull us out of “wooden hoe farming”, a tenet that seems to define our way of life. An enabling environment such as energy, roads, telecommunications and reform of business rules is a must.
In short, I must say, the three strategies have been great works but have not articulated our priorities in a manner that reflects our vision and priorities in a global competitive environment. We seem to have been overtaken or hijacked by interest and lobby groups plus certain rogue external elements with their one size fits all approach. The basics are obvious and should be priotised. Education, health, infrastructure and reform of business laws and the banking system.