Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Why is Malawi so poor?

I love mangoes. I love paw paws as well, but you don't really get them here. However, it’s the mango season just now in Malawi, so they’re everywhere. Street traders try to press a dozen on you at a time, claiming their ripeness. I don’t need much persuasion. I love their fragrance and even their stickiness. And they are delicious, though really I should only ever eat them wearing a bib – that’s me, not the mangoes. Admittedly, they do have the disadvantage of leaving fibres stuck between your teeth, though you can deal with those during boring meetings. Here is rather a fuzzy picture of them, with strawberries from Bunda Agricultural College..

However, I’m not sure I would fancy eating nothing but mangoes. Yet, that is what poor families in some parts of the country are doing these days, according to an article in the Malawi News a couple of days ago. The column quoted Florence Mughogho, mother of five, as saying that on three days a week she boiled 15 green mangoes. The children got three mangoes each, together with a drink of water. On the other days they got a small amount of porridge made from cornflour. I have no idea what Florence herself ate.

Up in the north, hunger is biting. There is no maize at all in the markets: the drought killed it off. Family granaries are empty. The only work available is piecework for landowners. Digging 20 ridges 10 metres long so the land is ready for the planting season will earn you K100, about 10p, a story confirmed by the village headman. Many are too weak to work. The papers are calling it ‘slavery’.

The World Food Programme has started distributing food relief to 2.4 million people in Traditional Authority Ng’abu alone. Another 6 million are at risk in other areas. Other organisations such as UNICEF, the Italian government, the World Food Programme and the World Bank are also contributing. Britain has provided K8.75 billion, just under £10.38 million. The President has had to swallow his pride and go with begging bowl in hand to the western donors who withdrew their budgetary support a couple of years ago after the Cashgate corruption scandal. They won’t fill his country’s coffers, but they will provide humanitarian aid.

Hunger has a knock on effect on other physical conditions. It makes you more susceptible to malaria, for instance, and weaker when you go into labour. A spokesman for Livingstonia Synod Aids Programme said that 200 people with HIV/Aids which it is supporting, are suffering badly because of the effect on the body of taking ARVs when hungry. Multiply that across a country where 12% of the population is HIV positive.

Now the hunger this year may be a ‘one-off’, another result of El Nino. However Malawi has been a poor country for a long time. The continuing impact of climate change and environmental degradation caused by felling trees for firewood and charcoal burning cannot easily be reversed. In its 2012 study, Population Action International pointed to the impact on agricultural productivity of erratic rainfall, dry spells, droughts, high temperatures, floods and water scarcity. The result is poor crop yields and serious food shortages. Cereal harvests have fallen by 27% this year (Food and Agriculture Organisation) The World Food Programme says that 2.8 million people will face hunger.

Despite the warning signs, nobody really expected Malawi to be placed right at the bottom of the global socio-economic heap, as the World Bank announced a short time ago. It is among the bottom ten, among failed states like Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, on many indicators, even the number of traffic accidents!

Ironically, Malawi, unlike these countries, has not suffered armed conflict on its soil for a hundred years or more, indeed, since the David Livingstone days of slave raids and inter-tribal fighting. So, we can’t blame war. Why isn’t Malawi up there with countries like Ghana and even Malawi’s near-neighbour Zambia which shares many of its ethnic characteristics – poor enough, but doing better than Malawi?

The IMF has recently announced that Malawi has failed to meet its targets. GDP growth has fallen from earlier projections of 5.5% to 3%. A former finance ministers, Matthews Chikaonda, has just claimed that Malawi will remain in poverty for at least another 24 years, partly blaming its high population growth rate, 2.5% per year. Women have on average 6 or 7 children each.

One of the main contributions to the high birth rate is child marriage. The recent Marriage Act forbids marriage under age 18, though implementation remains doubtful. Teenage mothers leave school, their talents lost to society, bringing up their children in poverty. And the younger they start bearing children, the more they have. One of the key predictors of neonatal and maternal death is having more than four children. When a mother dies, her children are less likely to thrive, more likely to drop out of school and, if they are girls, likely to be sold off to raise family income, repeating the same cycle of deprivation.

Malawi has a population of 16 million people projected to increase to 18 million next year and 40 million in the next 10 years, with inevitable pressures on food security, heath and education services. 1,300 new citizens are born every day. The Anglican Bishop for Southern Malawi recently made a plea for people not to have children they could not care for. The First Lady herself has agreed to be Patron of the Family Planning Association of Malawi.

Both Zambia and Zimbabwe have smaller populations than Malawi but significantly more land. For example, Zambia has 13 million people in a country five times bigger than Malawi. Land mass matters when 80% of the population are farmers.

The Catholic Development Commission in Malawi, (CADECOM) recently launched a campaign called Realisation of Right to Food (RTF) for All Citizens: A Responsibility for Everyone. The campaign aims to support the poorest, those involved in subsistence farming. Interventions include crop diversification, small-scale irrigation, conservation agriculture, crop storage and care of livestock. British and Irish taxpayers are supporting CADECOM’s food security programme. Big players like the World Food Programme, Caritas and Oxfam are supporting Disaster Risk Reduction programmes to reduce the impact of drought and flood.

Other organisations are working with smallholders on developments such as growing pigeon peas, a high protein crop able to resist extreme climatic conditions, like El Nino. They grow certified seeds which are passed on to other farmers as well. The stalks are used for fodder and the leaves for fertilizer.

A group of non-governmental organisations including Oxfam, CADECOM and Action Aid are focusing support on women, who comprise 70% of the agricultural work force. The group says that Malawi is ‘being pushed to the edge by climate change’.

Malawi continues to vie with its dysfunctional competitors in a rush to the bottom of the league tables. Global Age Watch Index 2015 (HelpAge International) places Malawi among the bottom six countries which are the worst places to grow old.

What do I see as I walk the streets or drive out into the bush?

I see teenage mothers and babies begging at the sides of roads; worn out older mothers, resembling my mother at 93, shriveled, wrinkled and with sticks for arms and knobbly necks. Their listless infants have reddish brown hair, a telltale signs of chronic malnutrition. Exhausted old people sink in heaps on the pavements.

A couple of days ago, I saw six-year-olds picking up ants and fallen seeds from the filthy dust of the school compound, and popping them into their mouths. They’re not starving, but they’re not well fed either. They’re hungry lethargic children. There’s nothing wrong with eating ants; they’re a good source of protein. My colleagues exchange recipes. They fry them lightly and make them into a tasty and nutritious sauce. Not unwashed, however, in a country where 40% of child deaths are from diarrhoea. No pit latrines means open defecation. Just don’t even think about what is in that dust.

These children are Malawi’s future, sitting under the trees in classes of two hundred, ill fed, ill educated and unlikely to receive much if any treatment if they fall sick. They can’t walk the 35 kilometres to the nearest health centre. Neither can their pregnant mothers or ancient grandparents.

In one school, parents were removing their children from class and sending them across the nearby border to Mozambique to pick tobacco. The children come back with two pails of maize, and serious health complaints, another form of slavery.

One could go on and on.

Malawi failed to meet four of the Millennium Development Goals: eradicating extreme poverty, providing universal primary education, promoting gender equality and improving maternal health. These are the very areas which Malawi needs to address to pull itself out of poverty. And all of them relate to women and girls. How will it do on the 17 new Sustainable Development Goals?

Of course, we all know about corruption in Malawi. (And, indeed, in the UK if truth were told...) It’s not just the corruption that makes people poor, though it is a very significant factor. Think of the stolen heath supplies, the hospitals without even Panadol and where women in childbirth have to bring in their own birthing kits: a waterproof sheet, a reel of cotton and a pair of gloves for the nurse. All bought in the open market, one factor in the terrible rates of sepsis among newborn babies and their mothers.  Health centres have just had their funding cut by half.

However, Malawi’s problems also arise from the lack of industry or of goods to export. Small-scale craftsmen like wood carvers just don’t contribute enough to the economy and certainly don’t pay taxes. Unlike its neighbours Zambia and Zimbabwe, Malawi doesn’t yet mine for minerals.

The country is over-dependent on tobacco which employs 12% of Malawi’s workforce, contributes 13% of its GDP, provides 25% of its tax base and brings in 60% of its foreign exchange earnings. (Tobacco Growers Association of Malawi) Sounds good but who would want to rely so heavily on tobacco in a world in which smokers are either dying or giving up? Earnings from tobacco dropped 8% this year.

Malawi is Africa’s second biggest producer of tea after Kenya. Tea, a cash crop for export, is its second foreign exchange earner and contributes 7% to GDP. However, tea also suffered from the drought. The drop in output and earnings this year is expected to be the biggest on record.

Because so few people receive a regular formal salary, Malawi has a very small tax base, not much of a buffer when things go wrong. And even people who you think would pay tax don’t, including some of the very rich businessmen and politicians. Why? They just don't have to. You may think our own politicians do well. There are amazing perks for politicians here. Presidents, Ministers and MPs don’t pay tax at all. All cars are imported, but politicians don’t have to pay duty. Senior politicians retain benefits like free housing and even their official cars when they leave office.

So what is the government doing to address the funding crisis? Devising a system for taxing the informal sector, 91% of whose businesses operate without registration. Yet most formal businesses don’t pay taxes. The corporate tax share is only 16.5%. A couple of days ago I listened while the manager of the Santa Plaza supermarket openly asked a customer if he would get him some ‘black market’ Samsung TVs. Those missing taxes would pay for school books, classrooms, mosquito nets, ARVs, contraceptives, fertilisers and birthing kits.

So those are some of the reasons why Malawi is so poor.