Saturday, 11 June 2016

Saying it as it is in Malawi’s daily newspapers

It says a lot for Malawi’s journalists that they are prepared to write the things they do. It says a lot for Malawi itself that they are allowed to say them at all.

You can’t take freedom of expression for granted in many parts of Africa, or, indeed, in many parts of the world. In Bangladesh recently they have been assassinating reporters or beating them to death. In Russia, journalists can receive a shot in the back of the head. In Saudi Arabia, blogging can be punished by flogging, a euphonious but brutal fate.

But in Malawi, journalists can say what they want, and so they do. Day after day, scathing attacks appear about the competence or otherwise of the President or the unpopular decisions of the Finance Minister. These aren't the foul personalised attacks of the British gutter press, but, for the most part, sensibly argued articles about significant matters.

Today’s Nation reported that 8.8 million Malawians do not have enough to eat, half the population of nearly 17 million. The food shortage was bad enough last year. This year the shortfall in maize production has increased by 12.4%, caused by a combination of flood and drought. Prices have been shooting up. Inflation has been around 25% for the best part of two years.

We have known for some time that 47% of Malawi’s under-fives suffer from stunting. That was true even before this year’s bad harvests. Those miniature infants you see trotting off to school are in fact six or seven years old. Stunting is caused by malnutrition and results in irreversible damage to the brain. A tragedy for families, though they may not realise its significance. A tragedy for the nation, whose decision makers jolly well should. The potential of a whole generation is being inexorably destroyed. Difficulties in concentrating in class, manipulating numbers and retaining information are not innate. They have a cause, one that is perfectly preventable.

Malnourished children are more likely to die of malaria, or even of a simple cut on the hand. Malnourished mothers are more likely to die in childbirth.

However, for Malawi’s journalists, quite understandably, hungry families are no longer front-page news. Their difficulties are reported in passing, tucked into an article about the wisdom or otherwise of importing GM crops to feed them. The hunger story is no longer quite so shocking.

No, today’s scandal appears on the surface to be quite different. It concerns MPs’ expenses – no surprise there, then.

From the front page of the Nation we learn that Malawi’s MPs earn 1.4 million kwacha per month, about £1400. It doesn’t sound that much to us but it is a huge amount of money in a country in which a headteacher may earn only the equivalent of £60 per month and unpromoted teachers even less. In addition to their salaries, MPs receive 1.1 million kwacha in allowances for housing, motor vehicle maintenance and other such expenses.

Now this would be bad enough, except that they have any number of other perks as well. Malawi’s banks charge an eye-watering interest of 40% on financial loans. MPs, however, are apparently allowed preferential rates. The poor Malawian taxpayer pays 50% of the principal and 90% of the interest on these MPs’ loans. All Malawi’s cars are imported with duty payable – except if you’re an MP. MPs, however, are currently up in arms because the Government has been unable to give them access to the expected General Purpose Fund, which would add up to a national bill of K965 million.

The self-indulgence of the elite can really be quite shocking. The columnist Ephraim Munthali today told the story of the official from one of the developed nations flying economy class to a meeting in Europe about debt relief for Highly Indebted Poor Countries. As he walked to his cheap seat through business class, he caught sight of the delegation from one of the poor countries for whose debt relief he was supposed to be appealing: Malawi.

Munthali added a similar and recent anecdote about the US Ambassador, Virginia Palmer, also travelling economy class. Just this week, however, the Malawi Government was reported to have raided the funds of its overseas embassies in order to upgrade air tickets for the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his entourage to fly business class.

Munthali adds:

I assume the upgrade is from economy to business so that the two officials representing arguably the poorest country in the world can have a cloud nine feeling in the air while sipping some exotic drinks and relaxing on seats that are as comfortable as beds.

Meanwhile, their President has just announced that more than half the population (at least eight million people) will be starving this year. The President has since gone out with a begging bowl.

As they spent millions of kwacha in their connecting business lounges across the globe, people are dying because there isn’t medicine in public hospitals to cure them.

Why is there no medicine in Malawi’s hospitals? Partly because the tax base is so low and partly because many members of the elite seem to manage to wriggle out of paying it. Partly also because, as today’s newspapers also reported, 30% of the drugs in Malawi’s hospitals are stolen and sold in private clinics by hospital staff.

Article after article in today’s Nation pointed to the same or related issues. In an article entitled ‘More milk from withered teats’, ‘Backbencher’ wrote of the virtual impossibility these days for hardworking children of the rural poor who make up 85% of Malawi’s population to gain an education and enter ‘the world of opportunities’.  The gap between the rich and the poor is getting ever wider.

Steven Nhlane wrote of the irony of the government discontinuing Farm Input Subsidies and Decent and Affordable Housing Subsidies because of their lack of impact on poverty while continuing to pay subsidies to MPs.

Of course, we in the west also have rich businessmen and multi-national companies which don’t pay taxes, or don’t pay enough. Indeed, my own country, Britain, has recently been described as one of the most corrupt countries in the world because of its provision of offshore tax havens for the rich and famous.

Poverty in our own wealthy country is getting worse because of deliberate political decisions, not because of El Nino or climate change caused by industrialised nations on the other side of the planet. Yes, I know we have our poverty too, but it is relative. Most poor Malawians would be astonished to learn that even poor people in Britain have electricity, piped water, flush toilets and television.

Oh, and for the most part our children don’t die, suffer irreversible brain damage or lose their mothers because their families don’t have enough to eat.

That they don’t suffer in this way is because of what is left of our social contract. And the lack or loss of a sense of responsibility for the weaker members of society among many – but not all – members of Malawi’s elite is what its journalists are writing about.

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