Joyce Banda and the IMF: A dangerous courtship


There is nothing new under the sun. Absolutely nothing. Not even woman presidents. Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba are among the very first of notable women leaders in the annals of history who wielded massive influence on what was then a global stage.

Cleopatra (late 69 BCE – August 12, 30 BCE) in particular, holds the unique distinction of reigning as the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She had a powerful allure to say the very least. Her diplomatic charm offensive included forging a steamy alliance with one Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar’s legal heir, Augustus. It was an alliance that bore the pair three children – the fruits of one woman’s desperate bid to retain control over her dominion.

Up to this day, leaders continue to make desperate trade-offs to ensure the survival of their nations. For the most part, such trade-offs only buy them brief windows of breathing space. Ultimately, they fall short of postponing the inevitable.

And hence there is nothing new under the sun. More worryingly however, there is nothing fresh coming from modern day politicians to suggest that power relations between the weak and the strong have changed for the better. It is pretty much a case of same script, same plot, different cast, different era.

You will therefore excuse me for not sharing the enthusiasm expressed by most about the coming to power of Joyce Banda in Malawi. I will certainly not wax lyrical about how her ascendancy to the top post is a breath of fresh air. It would have been had it not been for her propensity to follow a well-trodden path of dependency on handouts. For all intents and purposes, Her Excellency has taken a cue from a well-read script of pandering to the whims of donors and the IMF who have since rewarded her with a hefty $157-million “aid package”; a euphemism for a loan with the sort of devastating terms and conditions we tend to gloss over. Let’s not forget that there is no free lunch in the order of millions anywhere in the world.

All too often we have seen countless third world leaders reach out for IMF bailouts when the right thing to do is to take difficult decisions which, although painful in the short term, are beneficial in the long run. The IMF does not have an exemplary history in the third world. The institution is notoriously known for forcing through Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) on countries which fail to repay their debts. The SAPs which are engineered with the help of economic hitmen, have in most cases worsened instead of alleviating the plight of the poor. One such economic hit man, John Perkins, has since revealed that on April 16 2004, members of the steering committee of the Development Group for Alternative Policies wrote to the then World Bank president James Wolfensohn that SAPs were having a destructive impact in the countries where they had been implemented. The letter reads in part: “Over the past decade, far from reducing poverty, adjustments programs have resulted in increased poverty and economic inequality as well as numerous economic crises.”

Joyce Banda’s readiness to devalue Malawi’s currency is part of an IMF orchestrated path of least resistance for desperate nations seeking desperate measures. Often in such instances, the right thing to do is also the most difficult and painful of all. Whilst it is appreciated that Malawi does not have sufficient forex earnings to shore up the Kwacha and the country’s balance of payments, she still has a little bit of something as opposed to nothing at all.

Despite having the renowned freshwater chambo species swimming in abundance in Lake Malawi, the country is yet to exploit the potential of a thriving fisheries industry. Neither has Malawi made a concerted effort to position her superior brand of Chombe tea for the export market. No effort to harness the country’s celebrated arts and crafts has been made. To this day, art pieces crafted by Malawian artists are bought for song on the informal markets in Blantyre and Lilongwe only to be sold for an arm and a leg by enterprising middlemen operating in the lucrative international markets.

Malawi had a compelling tourism mantra once: the-warm-heart-of-Africa. Nothing has been heard of this campaign lately. In an era when the world has shrunk considerably and the tourism market has benefited immensely from advances in technology and social media, the authorities in Malawi are still to apply their minds to tourism or indeed an investment campaign to rival that of countries such as Turkey and Indonesia.

It therefore seems to me that Joyce Banda needs to be reminded that there is nothing new under the sun. We have seen far too many third world countries devalue their entire stock of natural resources in exchange for loans, only to be caught in a web of dependency weaved by the IMF and donors.

I was seriously hoping that Madam President would be the first woman leader to realise that the IMF need her more than she needs them but I’m beginning to despair. Her charm offensive has included the selling of the presidential jet, a laudable move. All told however, her courtship with the IMF is nothing short of a dangerous liaison. We have seen it far too many times: third world nations diverting large sums of money to debt repayments instead of fixing their infrastructure, healthcare and uplifting their people.

Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt, was only successful in staving off the inevitable for a short season. Eventually her luscious exploits to defend her power base came to nought and Egypt was swallowed by the behemoth that was the Roman Empire. Quite clearly then, and perhaps metaphorically speaking, courting the enemy in order to save your nation is an exercise in futility especially when the enemy in question is the powerful and overbearing IMF. Madam President, there is absolutely new under the sun.

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