Malawi Economy: More questions than answers


It appears the honeymoon is over. People have started asking the PP led government tough questions and are expecting satisfactory immediate answers. The economy is biting hard following the massive devaluation of the Kwacha that the Joyce Banda government implemented as soon as it hit the ground running.

Some sectors have resorted to threatening strikes, or indeed, embarking on industrial action in order to squeeze fast answers on how the government plans to enlighten their economic burden. The mischievous economy is becoming the regular feature at dinner table conversations.

It turns out that apart from passing the so called recovery budget and effecting the massive devaluation, the government had not yet put together concrete plans on how it would engineer economic recovery beyond just fighting the ills inflicted upon this country by late Mutharika’s administration.

This has been spiced up by relentless appeals to the public for patience in order to accord government enough time to turn the economy around. It appears people’s patience is wearing thin faster than expected since the prospects of immediate recovery continue to look bleak.

Economic Recovery

At least we now have an economic recovery plan. This was announced last Sunday morning as I was driving from Lilongwe to Zomba by the Minister of Economic Planning and Development on Zodiak radio. He indicated the economic recovery plan had been endorsed at a Cabinet retreat in Lakeside district in Mangochi.

Too little too late? This was my immediate reaction but I was comforted by the age old wisdom which says better late than never. I am not privy to the full details of the recovery plan but on the basis of the Minister’s interview on Zodiak I have a fair sense of what it broadly entails.

I am not interested in the details of the recovery plan. I am sure I will get the chance to critically examine them at an opportune time. What really caught my attention was the Minister’s description of the 18 month long recovery plan and how he sees it working in order to deliver the country from precipice of economic collapse.

He said all the right things that have been intimated before that makes it difficult for the country’s economy to swing onto a fundamental and sustainable path of transformation. We are never short of plans but they often never implemented as a matter of routine. When attempts are made, they are never consistent both in pace and focus.

We are easily overtaken by fads. This makes it extremely difficult to pursue initiatives to their logical conclusion. Of course, pragmatism is part and parcel of the game but it appears it is always extremely difficult for us to get it right.

Instead of creatively tweaking initiatives to respond to changing circumstances we tend to discontinue them altogether, and restart them as if nothing ever happened. No meaningful lesson learning takes place and rich institutional memory is discarded just like that.

I will return to this issue later. In describing the economic recovery plan, the Minister coined an interesting metaphor, quinine or panado, in order to underscore the hard choices the government faces as it labours to stave off the current economic down turn.

He claimed they have chosen administering to the economy quinine over panado. But quinine for whom? Is it a choice between taking quinine or panado? Or taking both quinine and panado to cushion the side effects of quinine? Does one take quinine before taking panado? The failure of the government to implement austerity measures as promised seem to suggest that quinine is for us whereas the top dogs can get away with panado coated in decent subsistence allowances.

In describing the economic recovery plan, the Minister spoke of the desire to facilitate the progressive emergence of a developmental state. This is quite fascinating but let me hasten to add that I did not get a sense of whether there is a clear vision of a developmental state that they would like to churn out.


The establishment of the Projects Implementation Unit in the office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) was flagged out as one of the key steps towards kick-starting a developmental state. Is this a credible solution? How does the establishment of this unit address the weaknesses of implementation capacity in the civil service? Isn’t this just another a way of deepening the crisis of implementation capacity?

It is pleasing to note that some people in government cherish the idea of a developmental state. This is an issue that this column will engage with, in the next few weeks because it is very critical not only to making the economic recovery plan work but also to accelerating the country’s quest for fundamental and sustainable democratic transformation.

For today, however, it would be very critical to thrust onto the table one of the critical features of a developmental state, namely: embedded autonomy. This is particularly important for the leadership to deliver on promises of development in an equitable and just manner.

Strategic impact

While the leadership has to be embedded in society, it has at the same time to be effectively autonomous from the undue societal pressures so as to effectively pursue the greater common good. The question then becomes how can embeddedness and autonomy be effectively combined in order to achieve the desired strategic impact?

There is a great deal of concern about the extent to which the current leadership enjoys embedded autonomy. The presidency is called up to intervene in almost everything when relevant institutions to deal with these issues exist.

Just look at how different groups in the last four months have called upon the presidency to intervene in their issues. The list is endless. It stretches from squatters to minibus owners. The presidency risks losing sight of the broader strategic goals and is likely to get bogged down in pretty micro issues with little or no consequence.

Quinine or panado? Minister, this is not a choice of either or. The issue is how do we take quinine with the right dosage of panado to effectively cushion the side effects of quinine? When panado is administered long after the patient has taken quinine, the mitigative impact may be limited or essentially non-existent. Such a quinine dosage risks inflicting irreparable damage to the patient.

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