Malawi govt under pressure as poll looms

As Malawi’s general elections draw closer, deepening national poverty is haunting efforts by the ruling United Democratic Front to remain in power.

In March, a United Nations Development Programme study on governance in Malawi revealed that poverty in the country had worsened during the past decade of multi-party politics compared to the situation under former dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

“A common statement by several people interviewed, including senior political party members… is that ‘We are worse off economically than under the previous regime’,” reads the study, adding “And indeed, there have been public demonstrations of nostalgia for Dr Banda’s rule.”

The findings of the report were underscored when economists and donor representatives met in the capital, Lilongwe, on Saturday and Sunday for the annual conference of the Economics Association of Malawi.

Delegates noted that Malawi’s Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP) “a national blue print developed by the UDF” had not yielded the desired results.

“Forced to give a verdict of PAP, the conclusion is that there was no compelling evidence to support the hypothesis of a general improvement in the overall living conditions of Malawians,” said development economist Khwima Nthara in a report entitled Has Malawi Developed since 1994?.

The study cited declining life expectancy, increased child mortality and a high proportion of hungry households as some of the factors behind its conclusions—as well as stagnating personal incomes.

While admitting that there had been “indisputable” positive developments in Malawi during the past decade, including a boom in real estate and informal trade, the study said there was still uncertainty about whether these trends had really raised living standards.

According to the UN Development Report for 2003, just under 42% of Malawians live below the poverty line of a dollar a day. These claims have come as a blow to the United Democratic Front (UDF).

Having ruled Malawi since 1994, the party has not been able to escape allegations that it bears most of the responsibility for the country’s decline.

But, “that is rubbish and lies,” thundered Mary Kaphwereza Banda, UDF deputy publicity secretary.

“The UDF has taken care of the people.
We have sunk boreholes everywhere.”

Kaphwereza Banda blamed Malawi’s food shortages on drought. “The UDF does not make rain. If people are starving, it is because of drought which we can’t control, and which no party can control,” she said.

Norman Ling, the British High Commissioner to Malawi, disagreed.

“All that this country needs is a good and decent manager. It’s a fallacy to say that you have hunger because of poor rains. The average rainfall of Malawi is double that of East Anglia, Britain’s food basket,” he said.

The UDF’s presidential candidate for the May 18 poll, Bingu wa Mutharika has also rebuffed the UN report, to the delight of other parties.

“It’s a big joke, and surprising, that an economist of Bingu’s calibre should refute credible studies of poverty,” said Salule Masangwi, Director of Publicity for the opposition National Democratic Alliance.

The UDF’s position has also been weakened by the fact that donors have been withholding aid to Malawi since 2000 because of poor economic management on the part of the government.

Since aid makes up about 38% of the national budget, government has borrowed money locally to make up the resulting deficit.

This has caused interest rates to soar—dismaying businesses which needed to raise capital. Aware that concerns about economic stability and food shortages could prove key battle grounds in the fight for votes, opposition parties have wasted no time in promising Malawians better governance. The Malawi Congress Party, for one, said it would take measures “to ensure subsidising of essential farm inputs, making farm credits readily available”.

Taking a different approach to his UDF colleagues, President Bakili Muluzi showed a willingness to eat humble pie recently when he admitted that his government’s economic management had not been stellar. But, he cannily used the occasion to justify his choice of Mutharika as successor, a move that received a chilly response from various UDF stalwarts.

“In 1993 and 1994, this country needed a political engineer and I was voted. But now that we have laid a political foundation, this country needs an economic engineer, and I am sure that is Dr Bingu wa Mutharika,” boomed Muluzi to a mammoth crowd in Blantyre’s Njamba Freedom Park on Sunday. - IPS

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