President Joyce Banda outpaced other African leaders from much healthier economies in the trip to the United Nations, blowing taxpayers’ K308 million part of which money could have been saved had she left later than she did.
Malawi News has found that Banda left for the trip far much earlier than leaders from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria — all of whose economies and people’s living standards are far better than Malawi’s.
Banda arrived in New York on September 17 and her main function on the itinerary was on Wednesday, September 26, when she addressed the United Nations General Assembly at 10 pm Malawi time. She is scheduled to return home on October 2.
Information gathered from government websites and state media in the respective countries show that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe arrived in New York on September 22, Zambia’s Michael Sata in the weekend of September 22, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan on September 24.
South Africa’s Jacob Zuma arrived in New York on September 23 while Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete delegated his Foreign Affairs minister, Bernard Mmembe, who arrived in New York on September 23.
Malawi News could not establish, however, when those leaders would return home.
According to the itinerary provided by the State House, her final assignment was on September 26 at the African American Institute where she made an address and received an award.
Going by the respective rates of inflation – the increase in the prices of goods and services in a country — for August to gauge people’s living standards, Malawians can ill afford executive extravagance as it has the worst August headline inflation at 25.5 percent up from 21 percent in July.
None of those countries sampled have their inflation rate any close to 20 percent. Tanzania’s August inflation was at 14 percent, down from 15 percent the previous month, and Nigeria’s was at 11.8 percent, according to details obtained from respective national statistical offices.
The details further show that in August, Zimbabwe’s headline inflation was at 3.6 percent, South Africa’s at 5.3 percent, Kenya’s at 6.1 percent and Zambia’s at 6.2 percent.
Last week, the presidency defended the expenditure saying it was a significantly reduced sum compared to an alleged K700 million on a similar trip last year by the former president Bingu wa Mutharika.
Again this week, Press Secretary to the President, Steven Nhlane, defended both the amount spent and the length of time the President has had to be in New York.
According to Nhlane, Banda had 25 meetings lined up.
“She left earlier [than other leaders in Africa] for the … reason that she had to meet many world leaders and potential investors. The UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] pools together many such people and organisations and it is easy to meet a great number of them ‘under one roof, so to speak,” he said.
He added the K308 million was money well spent.
“This is like seed money spent on what will bring many good returns later. The fruits could start to show after two months, three or after a year. But the President had to make the trip, raise Malawi’s profile and sell Malawi’s agenda to the world through meetings with all those world leaders and potential investors,” he said.
Nhlane said the President has a contingent of 33, saying each of them has tasks to perform. But other privileged sources put the number of the entourage at 53.
“The President lined up 25 meetings and at many of these meetings, the President was either a panelist or gave a key note address.
“Organising and facilitating at such meetings is not as easy as most people think. The 33 people shared those tasks,” he said.
He added Malawi has received a lot of monetary support, improved its forex cover and getting increasing goodwill, partly because of the president’s trips.
But economic commentator Collen Kaluwa said what he actually sees is a government playing double standards- preaching austerity but acting contrary.
“The mere fact that the last government spent that much [reportedly K700m] does not justify this huge expenditure at a time when the country is yawning for resources,” he said.
Kaluwa said this was just another way of government officials making hay while the sun shines.
“This make-hay-while-the-sun-shines syndrome does not help our cause at all. Austerity measures should begin with the president herself. Instead of globe-trotting, people want to see positive transformation,” he said.
The President’s itinerary shows Banda had her first engagement on September 18 meeting officials from Rockefeller Foundation, Overseas Private Investment Corporation and Du Pont.
On September 20, she delivered a speech to a Black Caucus Foundation and later gave an interview to CNN.
In the days before September 26 when she addressed the general assembly, Banda met officials from the US government including President Barack Obama, Global Forum on African Women, Humana People to People (a mother body for the Development Aid from People to People-DAPP), and Malawians in diaspora, among others.
In the past five months that she has been president, Banda has made at least seven international trips.
External travels have been sore points in the previous administrations with civil society and donors calling for their scaling down as a measure to cut expenditure to ease the pressure on the public purse while investing the money in publicly gainful causes.