Is the aid-dependent neocolonialism in Malawi what would be in store for Zimbabwe under an MDC government?

Jun 1, 2012

by Chido Makunike

New Malawian president Joyce Banda has wasted no time in trying to undo as much of the legacy of her late predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, as possible. Her main thrust can be quite simply summarized as: bend over backwards to do all that is necessary to appease the Western 'donors.' A deep practical and psychological donor dependence on the West is nothing at all new in Africa. It is a major, tragic hallmark of relations between post-'independence' Africa and its former colonizers. But in recent years there had begun to be a stirring of  African interrogation of this debilitating disease. It is therefore startling that in 2012, there is an African president who appears to almost proudly put the dependence of her country on foreign 'donors' as the cornerstone of her plans for her country's future. Would a similar fate befall Zimbabwe under Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC party if they came to power?

The statistic that Malawi depends for more than a third of its annual budget on donors has been oft repeated in recent times, with 'mama Britain' and the EU, and 'papa America' contributing the bulk of that external support. But part of both the spoken and unspoken deal about aid is that you receive it only if you behave in a certain way.

Mutharika, pumped up with the arrogance of power, forgot this. He became increasingly autocratic, which on its own would really not be a problem for Britain, the US and all the other holier-than-thou priests of  'human rights and democracy.' A casual examination at the rulers of nations they proclaim as their 'allies' shows that they have no particular aversion to good relations with a certain type of despot and autocrat.

No, that is not the main reason Mutharika got into trouble with the donors he initially foolishly thought were also his friends. You can't be donor-dependent like Mutharika's Malawi deeply was/is and then also want to speak out against your benefactors as if you really are independent.  

Although the 'human rights and democracy' nations are in bed with some very nasty regimes all over the world, for their domestic audiences they need to be seen to be at least speaking up in support of those noble tenets. So they made some polite noises to Mutharika about his need to respect them. If he had not reacted publicly, or if he had given his 'donors' a few meaningless but symbolically important gestures to make those donors be able to claim, 'look, we use the power of our donations to lean on that little country Malawi's president and he is now doing what we ordered him to do,' he would have been fine with his donors. That is how the game is supposed to be played.

Instead, Mutharika reacted Mugabe-like. he begun to publicly insult his benefactors, ignored their 'advice' (orders?) and generally acted in a way they found intolerable in a government they basically held by the balls through its donor dependence (on them.) Mutharika had already severely tested the patience of his Western friends by strongly, publicly (Mugabe-like) speaking out against the latest Western religion to be foisted on Africa, support for gay rights. He clamped down hard on protests against him, with 20 people dying. That caused some embarrassment to his Western supporters but again, if you are perceived to be 'with them' they can live with such strong-arm actions. But when  Mutharika went as far as expelling the ambassador of 'mama Britain' for some mild criticisms, the Western gloves really came off.

'Who did this little donor-dependent Mutharika think he was anyway?! Huh? We'll show him!'  

And so Britain withdraw a good part of the budgetary support it had been providing to Malawi. The rest of the Western donor pack, which in Africa often hunts and feeds as a team, joined in teaching Mutharika a lesson for his insolence by withholding or delaying aid, or threatening to do so.  

Inflation, shortages of fuel and other products, power cuts and so on had already plagued Malawi. The economy simply wasn't/isn't strong, productive and growing enough to meet the country's even faster growing needs, a problem far from unique to Malawi. When Western support was withdrawn, the problems accelerated, and the country's fundamental structural economic problems became much more glaringly apparent. Malawians' disgust with their president grew, and he proportionally became even more arrogant and autocratic. If he died of stress, it would not at all be surprising. He went from hero to zero in just a few years.

It is also not surprising that in Banda, relieved, hopeful Malawians are not just looking for a fresh start, many of them specifically welcome a new leader who is a fervent anti-Mutharika. His era started with much promise but did not end well and Malawians want to put it behind them.

But is throwing the country back even deeper into donor-dependency what Malawi needs? Is this the right response to all the painful lessons of the last several years under Mutharika? If an emergency injection of assistance from 'donors' will stabilize things in the short term, will unquestioned, long-term donor dependence not entrench and perhaps even worsen Malawi's economic helplessness?

Other than reviving the streams of aid from its donors, what plans does Banda have for the hard task of putting Malawi on the long road to eventually standing on its own feet? What her plans to eventually ensure that the country does not again stand on the brink of economic and social chaos because some Western ambassador gets up on the wrong side of the bed one day and recommends to his government that aid disbursement be delayed or cancelled for one reason or another?

It is understandable that madam Banda's immediate priority is to get emergency assistance to plug the many budgetary holes that had caused a real economic crisis. And perhaps going back to salve the Mutharika-bruised egos of the Western donors is the fastest way to do this. But even then, it is startling and disheartening to watch the extent to which Banda is eager to show how if Mutharika was too arrogant, too emptily nationalistic, too antagonistic to the donors; she is the polar opposite. Appeasing the Western donors seems an even more central part of her thinking than any sort of actual economic strategy, even a merely long-term one.

Mutharika had haughtily, rudely told off the IMF when it suggested a devaluation of the kwacha, whose open-market value had been freely declining because of hyper-inflation even as the official exchange rates with hard currencies remained fixed. Banda's quick 49% devaluation on coming into office was arguably simply catching up with reality. So on this score it would perhaps be unfair to accuse her of capitulation to the dictates of the unpopular but influential IMF.

Zimbabwe like many other countries endured the IMF's disastrous Structural Adjustment Program a couple of decades ago before aborting it. Much of the un-pleasantness seems to have been forgotten. The current finance minister, Tendai Biti, in his statements appears to be a slavish adherent of IMF 'wisdom,' and like Joyce Banda appears to put great stock in being praised by Westerners. If his MDC party were to assume full power, rather than continue to share power with ZANU-PF, one wonders if the annual budget might as well come from IMF headquarters, with Biti merely signing it and presenting the highlights to Zimbabweans.     
Homosexuality is as much a social-cultural taboo in Malawi as it is just about anywhere else in Africa, and probably in most of the world for that matter. This may become less so, but at different paces in different places. One of the most controversial aspects of its recent promotion as a 'human rights' issue in Africa is that it is to a significant extent driven by Western pressure. Africa's dependence on Western donors provides an important wedge for the application of that pressure, regardless of the 'we will not bow to foreign cultural values and pressure on this issue' hot air of some African leaders, including the late Mutharika.You will, because you are donor-dependent and if you don't, homosexual rights have become an important enough political issue in some Western countries that their governments have openly said they will use their aid programs to further squeeze the balls of governments who resist taking a softer line on this emotive issue.

Banda has been quick to announce that anti-homosexuality laws will be repealed. This is clearly not be cause of any societal pressure within Malawi to do so. It is not a pressing issue in Malawi, and if asked, most Malawians in 2012 would favor continuing sanctions for open displays of homosexuality. That is where Malawian social and cultural thinking currently is on the issue. So it seems clear that Banda is reacting to foreign pressure. Of course, that is one of the many consequences of being donor-dependent. Even the pace and nature of social change can capitulate more to foreign than local pressures.

In Zimbabwe, prime minister and presidential aspirant Morgan Tsvangirai has also recently changed from an expressed anti-homosexuality stance that looks outdated in many Western eyes but is entirely keeping with Zimbabwean/African mores, to a more homosexuality-rights sympathetic one. He argued his reasons for his change fairly well. He essentially said while he was 'straight' and acknowledged his society's strong feelings against homosexuality, he did not believe those reasons justified the prosecution or persecution of gays.

As reasonable and defensible as that stance is, it appeared to have been brought on by the coordinated chorus of Western pressure on African countries to accept homosexual rights, on pain of losing donor funds. British prime minister David Cameron had publicly said this just prior to Tsvangirai's changed stance, which he announced on the British Broadcasting Corporation on a visit to London! The impression was of a weak-willed African leader ready to change his position not so much in response to the social, cultural and political imperatives of the society he wants to be president of, but in response to the blandishments of distant foreigners (to make it worse, the ex-colonial master, no less) who might give him 'aid' in future,or perhaps are already doing so. Tsvangirai could have fairly easily defended his controversial but reasonable new position on gay rights, but the way and the circumstances of his announcing it were so poorly done that he lost the opportunity to do so.

By many accounts, president Omar al-Bashir is a nasty fellow. He has a particularly bad reputation in Western circles, and the West's latest attack dog against errant non-Western leaders is the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court, which has issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir. African governments have ignored it, the feeling being that the ICC mainly goes after African targets thought to be weak and vulnerable to Western pressure.

There is an African Union summit scheduled for Malawi in July. al-Bashir would likely have been there under Mutharika. Banda has loudly, publicly requested that al-Bashir not be there. Her reasons are interesting. She did not cite that he was a nasty fellow said to have a lot of Sudanese blood on his hands, nor that there is an international arrest warrant out for him. She instead cited fear of upsetting her donors if he was allowed to attend the Malawi AU meet!

Even if one agreed with the action, the reason given is a disturbing further insight into what seems like a developing pattern of complete capitulation of Malawi's sovereignty in order to get some aid.

Malawi and Zimbabwe are neighbors. They have much in common. Zimbabwe has experienced and has just come out of a decade of economic trials perhaps even harsher than the difficulties Malawi is undergoing now. The two countries are also very different in many significant ways, so there are not necessarily many direct parallels that can be drawn about the experiences and future projections of the two countries.

But seeing the way that Banda has chosen to tackle her country's problems and seeing where her head appears to be in regards to relations between her country and the West, and drawing lessons from the relevant parallels with Zimbabwe, one can't resist wondering: Is Morgan Tsvangirai Zimbabwe's Joyce Banda in waiting?

It is good and smart for Malawi to have good relations with as many countries of the world as possible, so improved ties with the West make absolute sense. But slavish donor dependence cannot be considered a policy or a strategy for any country, no matter how poor it is. In different ways, both under Mutharika and presently under Banda, Zimbabwe and Africa are getting new lessons on just how 'expensive' donor dependence is. It covers up fundamental, structural problems and temporarily reduces them, but at a very high cost.

The fundamental problem and challenge that Malawi and pretty much all African nations face is how to spur production, in all its different forms. Our countries are poor fundamentally because we are not 'productive' enough, in almost any economic sphere you care to examine. As long as our needs far outstrip our productive and earning capacity, we will remain poor, vulnerable and easy to control and manipulate by those who give us a few alms out of pity or to achieve their own goals. The difficult task of how to change that is the single greatest challenge for African leaders, and should be their overwhelming priority and pre-occupation, rather than figuring out the best one hundred ways to kiss the asses of donors.

One realizes the necessity of 'change' after a poorly performing, repressive political dispensation. But when one looks at the face and type of 'change' Mutharika's death has wrought on Malawi, and then one looks at the parallels with a Zimbabwe that soon is also going to unavoidably undergo a seismic leadership change of one sort or another, one gets very afraid at the thought of one of the currently contending versions of 'change' that could emerge!

Zimbabweans, beware of promised 'change' that is premised on the 'donation' of 'gifts' from 'friends' from afar whose vision of how you should run your country may be very different from yours!

The Zimbabwe Review                                        


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