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Is development aid to Malawi anything more than Neo-Colonial Life-Support?

A reflection on the new state of Malawi.

President Bingu wa Mutharika (with encouragement from Robert Mugabe) was beginning to develop a policy in Malawi that was designed to free Malawi from aid dependency. It was a poorly-conceived policy, and very crudely executed, like everything under Bingu’s immediate direction, but it had the potential to free Malawi from its humiliating status as international beggar.

There was something almost heroic in Bingu’s defiance of the world-order as he, the leader of one of the poorest countries in the world, sent the British ambassador packing and told the donors to “go to hell”. His sudden death in April of this year changed all that. His Vice-President, Joyce Banda, took his place according to the rules of the Malawi Constitution, and reversed that policy. The donors (IMF, DfID, EU, USAID etc) are now pouring back into the country with their bags full of aid-money: hoping to get things back to the old order when that money was injected direcly into the Malawian government as “Budget Support”. Back to the good old days of past-president Bakili Muluzi and his UDF party who knew how to get rid of that money quickly, and without fuss.

No-one has a good word to spare for Bingu these days. The foreign-exchange bureaus are functioning again and the petrol pumps have fuel to sell. Bingu’s appetite for personal self-enrichment and luxury, always suspected, is now obvious for all to see. His scowling, bullying, finger-wagging brand of leadership has been replaced by a more open, more honest and more colourful presidency with a genuine freedom of speech and of the media. The Police and the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation are no longer agents of dictatorship.

These are very important developments and the western donors are as pleased with them as are the Malawian people.

But is Malawi in danger of losing something important as the aid-money begins to flow again into Lilongwe .The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is a good example. It is back again as Malawi’s biggest donor, with £90 million. to spend every year there from its overall budget of £8,000 millions. DFID will be followed by a new British High Commissioner to occupy the vast British embassy in Lilongwe. The hundreds of Malawian NGOs and international charities with offices in Lilongwe are lining up again to spend that DFID money, as are the government ministries (Agriculture, Education, Health) which no longer have to worry their heads about awkward policy- issues and budgets. With an exchange-rate of 436 kwacha to every pound, £90 million pounds converts to so many devalued Malawian kwacha that no-one needs to worry about exhausting that pot. There’ll always be another western donor standing eagerly by, to fill any awkward holes. Hilary Clinton is due into Lilongwe at the end of this week.

In Britain, and in much of Malawi, DFID is considered to be a benevolent and politically-neutral player on the world stage: concerned only with reducing poverty. Indeed, the money DFID spends on fertilizer- and seed- subsidies in Malawi: (that part of it, at least, which gets past the corrupt Malawian middlemen who are given the government contracts for its purchase from South Africa and Saudi Arabia and for its transportation to the Malawian farmers) DOES some real good for the poor. There really IS poverty-reduction in Malawi, if only for a few months.

BUT does this aid come at a serious political price? Is DFID really politically neutral? Is Joyce Banda’s “good behaviour” as interpreted by the western donor countries irrelevant to it? Is President Banda, for example, free to re-value her hugely de-valued currency without the donors’ authorization? Is she allowed freely to interfere in the tobacco-market, as Bingu so often tried to do, against the US tobacco-buying monopolies and on behalf of Malawi’s tens of thousands of poor tobacco-farmers? Is any of this aid money allowing Malawians to be more self-sufficient? I guess not.

Joyce Banda is the darling of the West, at the moment, and will remain their darling as long as she does what they tell her to do. Paul Kagame, in Rwanda, who was, only yesterday, the blue-eyed boy (so to speak) of the US and British political establishments has now been stripped of his DFID aid-money because of his support for the “wrong” side in the DRC.

As long as the aid money keeps flowing to Malawi, will anyone care about the almost-invisible strings attached to it? The strings will always be pulled by very nice, university-educated, well-intentioned, people, in London, like Andrew Mitchell (the British minister currently in charge of International Development). These people would reject any accusation of “neo-colonialism” with genuine indignation and they have a huge British government department to prepare their self-justifications. Malawian politicians in Lilongwe will hardly feel the pressure exerted by these strings until they dare to renege on the unwritten contracts. Then there’ll be no mistake about the pressure, as Malawian subsistence-farmers are forced to confront serious famine once again and as Malawian voters threaten to change their minds about their political masters. What is a political master worth in Malawi if he doesn’t have “development” funds at his disposal?

The British Empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was administered by nice and well-educated men like the British prime minister, David Cameron, and his Conservative party-colleague, Andrew Mitchell, who believed that they were doing good for the silly “natives” in Africa. It was called “Civilization” then, and is called “International Development” now. In the cold light of history we can now see that the British Empire did as little lasting good for the colonized natives as it did for Britain itself. It actually impoverished them both.

DFID is following a very, very, familiar track.

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