Probably the best thing that happened to me in 2017 was the chance encounter with the book called The Power of Habit written by a gentleman who is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and the 2012 New York Times bestseller Charles Duhigg.
This is not an economics book but there are several economic lessons one can learn from it. The book is based on the role of habits in individuals, organisations and societies and the things that really control our behaviour and our results. The greatest lesson for me from the book is the assertion that the power of habit is the ability to automate willpower; turning a painfully scarce resource into an infinite one. The book continues by reminding us that “each of our habits has a different catalyst and offers a unique payoff”.
There are those that have formed a habit of pessimism, the way of looking at Malawi as a country where nothing good can ever come from. Those who question any positive economic statistics simply because they do not fit into their narrative? The habit of a lack of honesty, integrity and total disrespect to various professionals job is to derive the statistics businesspeople, ordinary Malawians and politicians use to advance their cause? These habits dictate nearly everything we do as a nation. It is, therefore, necessary to understand that Malawi’s economic success is completely dependent on the ability to identify, reshape and build new habits.
Another economic habit that needs to change is the belief that the only way this country will develop economically is when foreigners take over the mantle of industrial development in Malawi. The habit of giving preference to foreign businesspeople at the expense of Malawians is another that needs to change; the habit of religiously accepting and paying the price for tomatoes on the price tag in Shoprite or Spar for tomatoes but using all the power and intelligence to negotiate a discount on the tomatoes being sold by the Malawian lady outside the shop; the habit that everything foreign is superior to local.
The habit of patronising local products is a mindset problem and Malawians should begin to realise that buying within has an important role to play in reviving this crashing economy.
As a nation, we should be ashamed of the habit of accepting thievery as a career. Thieves build nice houses, drive flashy cars and we all envy them! They steal our money and we applaud them. We treat them as our heroes. They have become role models for our youths. They beat the legal system using every trick in the book and we clap for them. It is quite fashionable to be thieves of public funds in Malawi. This habit will lead us nowhere.
There is a habit among our politicians and non-politicians in Malawi to assess issues based on who has said them rather than what the issue is. It has become a norm that the party in government does not take any suggestion from those in opposition. Similarly, those in opposition will always doubt or find fault with what the party in government does. The debates in Parliament and even on the streets among most of us are based on who said what rather than what was said. The analysis of the issues is contaminated with lenses of different shades. Shades of political party affiliation, region of origin, tribe and even gender lead us to not see clearly the facts and the issues at hand. This is a very worrying habit.
Malawians have also perfected the habit of coming up with brilliant documents and strategies and never implement them.
For a country that has for a long time been described as poverty-stricken, it has indeed done very well on ideas and plans. Malawi as a nation has such a surprisingly sophisticated awareness of what needs to be done to improve economic performance.
Perhaps what we lack is the seriousness and commitment to put what is on paper in practice. Since 1994, we have gone through the Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategic Plan (2002- 2005), the two versions of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (2006-2011and 2011- 2016), the Economic Recovery Plan spiced in between by several policy documents.
This, my dear Malawians is the dangerous habit! Whatever political administration has been in power so far has produced rich and detailed plans with reassuring regularity, playing and occasional successful part in making Malawi not a middle income-country but a poverty-stricken nation.
Could 2018 be the year of breaking these habits? The book teaches us that every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The idea that even the most addicted alcoholic can become sober and that a high school dropout can become a successful executive is something that I think can relate to the Malawian reactions to the economic developments of 2017. Let us make 2018 different.
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