I stumbled across this article in the Washington Post this week about Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new premier and Africa’s second female leader. Perhaps a more thorough and considered analysis of the future of Malawi’s development should follow here… instead though I want to write about Joyce Banda.
Much has been made of Malawi’s new leader, and the heralded dawn of a new era. After succeeding Mutharika after his heart attack back in April, Banda took no time in making quick and bold decisions in the interest of her country. Devaluing the Kwacha (which the IMF had been advising Malawi to do for some time, and holding back much needed funds in order to try and persuade the devaluation) was one of the policies that was painfully felt by all Malawians as they saw prices soar and the value of their money drop. Many Malawians had the wisdom to understand though that this was a painfully necessary measure to get Malawi back on the path of economic growth. We know from history that printing and circulating more money doesnt work, see Germany in the depression and Zimbabwe in recent times.
Since I have endeavoured to make this blog a forum for positive stories of African development, I am somewhat annoyed by the level of criticism and cynicism Banda has attracted from some Malawians (seems to be a minority though), aid workers, donors and expats. Throwaway comments from people on twitter and so on have sniped at her just trying to appease donors, and being as power-hungry and apathetic towards her country’s poverty levels as her predecessor. So often we overlook the simple facts and refuse to let ourselves feel anything other than bitter cynicism (especially those expat aid workers who seem to enjoy playing ‘expert’ and snubbing anything that sounds like positive African news).
Number 1. Joyce Banda is Malawi’s first female premier (the US has yet to achieve this…) and Africa’s second female leader. Significant!
Number 2. Banda has made a point of doing away with the lavish lifestyle; getting rid of the $12m private jet for example, the cause of the decrease of aid from the UK to Mutharika’s government. This may only be symbolic, and she may well still ride around in a large motorcade, but the symbolism is huge and profound in the context of African leaders who spend more money on their own luxurious lifestyle than on eradicating the poverty of the citizens they are supposed to represent.
Number 3. Banda is focusing policy in line with Malawi’s interests; not her own and not donors. She is doing what she thinks is needed to support and sustain Malawi’s rich and beautiful heritage whilst reforming areas pertaining to human rights and economic reform that have, until now, renegaded Malawi to the bottom of development indices.
Number 4. Whether you’re a raging neoliberal or a passive hippy believing in the sustainability of small scale farming, you can’t escape the fact that when Mutharika was in power there was no fuel, scarce electricity and forex which led to shortages of almost everything up and down the country. Businesses were crippled, investors started leaving the country. Now, under Banda, things are starting to return to normal and investment (which is not necessarily being welcomed with open arms) is returning. Good news!
How much will really change, long term, remains to be seen. Maybe it is too good to be true to expect Malawi to enjoy an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity. Maybe Joyce Banda will join the large number of African leaders who have been paraded as the saving grace for African development by the West, but become dictatorial and oppressive leaders of authoritarian regimes. But for those who protested about media freedom, for those who campaign for human rights, for the business’ now able to get fuel and ensure deliveries can be made – basically anyone living in Malawi who endured the Mutharika years – this has got to be a good start.
Let’s give Joyce Banda the encouragement and optimism that her new government deserves. It is after all, pretty boring to maintain this ‘we decide what’s good for you’ ethos. We talk about participation and ownership, but the cynics out there serve only to endorse the continued arrogance of the West that we get to decide what is good and bad and what development should look like.
Come on Malawi, prove all the boring buggers wrong!!