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The Aid Train

To the Lake Discussing Aid, Malawi 27 January 1996
Our seventeenth day in Malawi, this follows on from Shirts, Shouts and Township. We travel to Lake Malawi for lunch, talking about aid. We visit the mission where many of the children at the SOS Village were first rescued by, we meet an archetypal Geordie, and we go to the Korea Garden Restaurant in Lilongwe.
Saturday today. We go off for lunch to the wheelhouse on Lake Malawi. We bounce along in the Toyota, still pondering the problem of aid, Penny and John in a state of some despair following their meeting two days ago where they were accused of racism.
The following section is on the politics of aid. The narrative continues after.
In the newspaper we read a statement by the second vice-president of Malawi in which he put what is presumably the official Malawian view regarding aid: that it is quite right and proper that part of the money collected from taxpayers in rich countries should be given to help the people in poor countries. Fair enough, most people would go along with that. But he goes further, repeating the case that we have come across so frequently here, that control of that money by the donor country is simply a form of neo-colonialism. Interest on money loaned is also seen as a ploy to keep the recipient country poor, as it soon builds up to a level that is greater than the country’s entire productive output. No mention of any idea of paying the loan back.
So there is an impasse. The donor countries feel that, since it is their money they should have some say in its use, knowing too that they are answerable back home to criticisms of waste or squander; the recipient countries, or Malawians at least, think that a gift should be a gift and that being told what to do with it is patronising and a put-down.
The Malawians see the SOS Children’s Village in Lilongwe as theirs. They have been given it, so the directors should be Malawian and not subject to interference from outside.
This attitude appears to run right through. The mainstay of the economy is aid, the Malawians see the development of their country in terms of what they can be given by the rich countries, while the rich countries want to develop projects that will encourage Malawi to support itself, but this is seen in Malawi as colonialism. What an impasse! Two opposing views from opposite directions.
A half-way point of agreement is in effect impossible to achieve, because in the end it is the donor countries’ money and they are answerable for it. The Malawians can stamp their foot and cry racism as much as they like, but an organisation such as SOS has to demonstrate itself squeaky clean to those people who fund it from all parts of the world. The accounts have to be in order and the standards of the Village maintained, and if the standards are seen to be lacking someone will come in from overseas and put them right, or else close the place down. Tough on the Malawians who feel colonised and put down, but tough it is going to stay.
The only real win-win will be if there is an effective Malawian management, one that produces results that are acceptable to the people holding the purse strings. This seems unlikely to happen, as the moment any audit takes place the Malawian will be branded as a colonialist collaborator if he participates in it. If aid is seen as a gift by right, then this attitude is a logical one.
Penny and John are the wrong people to deal with all this. They are too moral and public-spirited. It needs a hatchet man, someone who will monitor the performance in a dispassionate and businesslike way, who when the Malawians cry colonialism simply says look, either you play the game by our rules or you lose the lot, understand? There’s a risk that this approach gets you kicked out of the country, and if that happens then you have to leave. The children’s welfare is really a secondary issue. [Next political . . .]
Pondering on these issues with Penny and John, though not so bluntly as it is not really any of our business, we stop at the mission where Penny and John get most of their children from.
The mission is run by four nuns, one Spanish (whom we did not meet), one Columbian and two Indian. They appear to be running a hospital, really, where mothers and children can recover from malnutrition.
It seems that quite a few of the babies that they take in die. One is dead on the floor of one of the rooms, covered by a blanket. We see a woman sitting on the floor breastfeeding the remaining one of a tiny pair of twins of hers. The nun takes the baby from the woman, shows it to us, shows us its tiny, spindly legs, then hands it back to the woman, who looks frightened and says nothing.
The Columbian nun shows us their new eating and cooking room that they are proud of because it has a chimney so the smoke from the fire has somewhere to escape. It also has gloss-painted polystyrene tiles on the ceiling – a good thing we aren’ environmental health inspectors, we’d be twitching and foaming at the mouth. We wouldn’t like the lizard on the windowsill either, crawling about the window-catch trying to escape.
We see the existing dining room, where the fire for cooking has no chimney, so the smoke wafts around the room and blows out through the open door. Mothers and children sit crowded together over three-quarters of the room, eating nsima and relish (‘relish’ is vegetable sauce). The women pick up a dollop of white maize porridge with their fingers, roll it into a ball, and press on some relish, which in this case looks like watery baked-beans. Nsima and relish served on a tin plate. Probably tastes of nothing. The scene looks like something that might be imagined in the workhouse or poor hospital of 150 years ago, where probably mashed potato and gruel would be the equivalent.
And then on towards the lake where we have a couple of drinks in the odd, sad, Wheelhouse, a bar on stilts in Lake Malawi, except that the level of the lake has dropped so now it isn’t on the lake at all, just a sleepy smelly bar that sits alongside a ruined building.
We eat our picnic on the beach, have a swim in the shallow lake, water like a warm bath, then find we’re running a little late so rush off home.
While we are packing-up on the beach a man in a baseball cap appears over the rocks and asks in a Geordie accent whether we know Colin, works in the tobacco industry, has a plot of land round here. No, we don’t. It&trsquo;s just that I could do with tracing him like, he said, as he said he wanted some construction work done. Everywhere you go in the world there’s a Geordie who has met someone in a pub who has promised him some work.
We leave Geordie and his big silent friend, with their baseball caps and Singha-beer T-shirts, peering into ruined buildings looking for Colin. They have a Keir pickup, though presumably Keir takes on bigger projects than Colin’s.
We stop by the souvenir sellers at Salima. It all seems a lot seedier and tackier than it did two weeks ago. Do we want any of this junk? Do we want to play: ‘I give you good price, how much you want to pay?’. No, we don’t, but we buy some gifts to take home anyway. Penny and John are keen to get away and so are we really, but you have to have a few gifts, presumably.
Back home in the dark and rain, late for the Korea Garden Lodge restaurant. Quick change and off to the Korean, fairly ordinary, catering primarily for Europeans, but without it where could you go out to eat in Lilongwe? Not many places, only the Indian and Chinese, and a Korean, run half-decent restaurants in these parts. The bill for four comes to 550 kwatchas (£24). We are the last to leave and the elderly Korean owner says bye-bye looking exhausted. It is 9.30pm.
The story continues with The Market at Lilongwe.


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