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Reflections on the January 1996 Malawi Trip
This is written in January 2010, fourteen years after our Malawi trip. The trip raised lots of questions, many of which still stay unresolved.
Noting much seems to have changed in Malawi in the intervening fourteen years. Malawi is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Many of its people live in dire poverty and life expectancy is very low. On the first day that we arrived in Malawi John told us the there were really two problems that were keeping Malawi down: AIDS and aid. He was right.
Malawi pretty-much relies upon overseas aid, and the odd thing is that many officials in Malawi see this quite right and proper, the rich countries should support the poor ones. In taking this position, however, they are in effect perpetrating colonialism, the very thing that they want to stamp on at every turn.
Why does aid perpetrate colonialism? It is because that aid cannot be given unconditionally, no one in any donor country is going to able to justify aid if they see it all being spent on things that they, the donors, disapprove of. So he who holds the purse-strings pulls the strings, and he who holds the purse is the white man, effectively. Chinese, Indians, Japanese, are seen by the Malawians as the white man.
While we were in Malawi we read in the paper about an ambulance that had been donated to a particular region by Toyota. The son of the chief of that area had been using the ambulance to take his girlfriends for a ride, had been batting it along at 80mph knocking over goats and children with abandon, as you do, until eventually he put it in a ditch thereby writing it off. So the chief asked Toyota for another one. Unsurprisingly, in our terms, Toyota refused. The chief and the local officials were outraged. This is colonialism, this is the white arrogance of dictating how the local people should use their belongings, and Toyota’s refusal will mean that people cannot get to hospital and will die. A difference of approach.
Unlike some people, I do not believe that Malawians have a gene loose. I think that they are holding themselves back, but there are plenty of people in all countries in the world who would hold their country back given half a chance. They would not mean to, but by closing themselves in to outside influence and ideas they would unwittingly have that effect. Malawi will not be able to progress until it opens itself up.
Malawi’s neighbour Zimbabwe has gone even further down the closing-up route with even more devastating effect, so things in Malawi could perhaps be worse. But the reliance on aid has a severely negative influence. Aid becomes the industry in itself. There was a telling BBC report on this in From Our Own Correspondent in January 2010, I can find the podcast but not yet a transcription, about how all everyone wants to do is to get themselves onto the aid gravy train, and then have endless meetings for which they get funding. This was a story from Jo Fidgen about Zambia. Malawi will not be much different.
It’s hard to know when and whether Malawi, or Zambia or Zimbabwe for that matter, will break itself out of this cycle. It seems unlikely that it can do it without a fair amount of pressure from outside, but who is to do the pressing? It will have to be some form of neo-colonialism, though I don’t think that Europe will be up for it, it has too many problems at home. Probably America is the only possible contender and I wonder whether this might be black America. The black American we saw arguing the toss in the bank in Lilongwe was able to do something that a white man would be unlikely to get away with. And many black Americans will have ancestors from that part of the world. Yes, that seems to me to be the most likely possibility, though when, or if, who knows?
Penny and John left Malawi a couple of months after our trip. Barbie and Ken did not take over, instead SOS put in place someone experienced in dealing with the local authorities in circumstances such as this, and presumably he and his successors managed to do a pretty good job as the SOS Children’s Village at Lilongwe has expanded and there are new Malawi Villages opened up at Mzuzu (2002) and Blantyre (2007).
Perhaps my misgivings are excessive. Perhaps Malawi is on a route to positive change since our experiences in 1996. Perhaps.


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