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Independence heavily laden with poverty cargo

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By Richard Chirombo:

HOPEFUL—Mussa

Malawi simply cannot find a way out of poverty’s trap, or so it seems.

As such, despite having a plethora of development blueprints, the predictable outcome has, unfortunately, been loads of paperwork with little progress to show for it.

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And the evidence of stagnation is as startling as it is shocking.

The Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) indicates, for example, that Malawi had a gem of a development blueprint in Vision 2020, only for Malawians to founder on their voyage to prosperity due to lack of proper action.

“The Malawi Vision 2020 Statement — a document created by Malawians themselves — is the framework for expressing self-reliance, equal opportunities and the desire as a nation to be a middle-income economy powered by technology. Goal for the Malawians is to flourish into a middle-income country, with a per capita income of $1,000 by the year 2020. With the hopes of obtaining adequate and safe access to food, Malawians will focus their energies on increasing food production, developing irrigation, improving efficiency of markers and numerous other strategies. They hope to encourage community leaders to take the first steps and visit research stations to learn about new and valuable technologies.

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“Employment opportunities are often considered scarce, so Malawians aspire to reduce unemployment with techniques such as increasing commercial farming to enhance employment in agriculture. This will help aid in a fair and equitable influx of income. The result of inadequate resources promotes Malawians to strive for an economic infrastructure that will include the provision of roads, rail, water, air transport, provision of water and sanitation services,” it says in its report.

Others, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, cite Malawi Growth and Development Strategy one, two and three as some of the shining documents on the continent, just that positive results have not been forthcoming or, if they have been forthcoming, they have not been doing so fast enough.

As such, Malawi has been in a quandary.

No wonder, SARPN says: “A largely agricultural country located in southeastern Africa, poverty in Malawi is widespread among the population of more than 18 million. Landlocked by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, Malawi is faced with 50.7 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and a staggering 25 percent living in what is considered to be extreme poverty.”

The World Bank defines poverty-stricken people as those who live on $1.90 per day.

In the case of Malawi, the statistics are startling, with poverty being manifested in the number of people who have access to the national electricity grid. As at now, according to the National Statistical Office (NSO), fewer than one in 10 Malawians have access to electricity.

What is more, National Aids Commission statistics indicate that over 90,000 individuals live with HIV and Aids, with SARPN indicating that poor children are more likely to drop out of school before they reach Standard five than those from well-to-do families— more so because “a majority of the poor reside in rural areas, where there are limited economic activities and subsistence agriculture is the main income”.

In August 2018, The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) indicated that inequality continued to rise in Malawi as evidenced by the rise in the Gini coefficient from 0.339 to 0.461 between 2005 and 2017.

Gini coefficient is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income or wealth distribution of a nation’s residents and is the most commonly used measurement of inequality.

A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality, where all values are the same, while a Gini coefficient of 1 or 100 percent expresses maximal inequality among values.

In its Country Programme Document for Malawi, which runs from 2019 to 2023, UNDP says the share of the poorest quintile in national consumption worsened from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 5.5 percent in 2012.

Malawi is classified as a least developed country, as nearly 70 percent of its 17 million people live on less than $1.90 a day, with poverty concentrated in rural areas, where 95 percent of the poor live.

Despite being largely peaceful, Malawi ranks 170 out of 188 countries with a Human Development Index of 0.476, placing it well below the sub- Saharan average of 0.523.

According to the country document, gender inequality is high in Malawi, with a Gender Inequality Index of 0.614, mainly due to negative social norms and discriminatory practices, resulting in women’s low levels of representation in politics and the economy.

However, Malawi seems to be failing to learn from history for, when he presented a paper during the 2016 Economics Association of Malawi annual conference, Chancellor College economist Richard Mussa warned that increased levels of income inequality could hamper the poverty-reducing effect of economic growth.

He added that extreme economic inequality was a threat to economic and social rights and threatened the realisation of all forms of rights everywhere.

“In 2004/5, the richest 10 percent accounted for 46 percent of total consumption, the bottom 40 percent accounted for 15 percent of total consumption.

“In 2010/11, the share of the top 10 percent increased to 53 percent in 2011, and that for the bottom 40 percent declined to 13 percent. The implication is that the consumption of the top 10 percent rose from being about three times higher to being about four times higher than that of the poorest 40 percent,” Mussa said.

He said, though the economy registered very high growth rates averaging over 7 percent per annum over the past decade, the Gini coefficient, or the gap between the poor and the rich, grew.

MAINSTAY OF THE ECONOMY—Agriculture

He singled out lack of recognition of inequality as a problem in its own right in any of Malawi’s development strategies as one of the factors worsening inequality.

“Malawi poverty reduction efforts would be more pro-poor and inclusive if deliberate policies to engender equality are instituted. From a population of about 16.3 million, the number of poor people in 2015 is 8 million: About half of the population.

“The National Statistical Office (NSO) further projects Malawi’s population in 2020 to be at 19.1 million. For Malawi to reduce poverty in the next five years and beyond, inequality must decrease significantly,” Mussa said.

Of course, now NSO says Malawi has a projected population of 17.5 million people, according to preliminary findings of Malawi Population and Housing Census of 2018.

However, almost three years after Mussa raised the sentiments, little has changed for the better.

Some of the only things that have changed, according to the World Bank, are human capital indicators.

“Malawi has made progress in building its human capital— the knowledge, skills and health that people accumulate over their lives—in recent years. Life expectancy is up to 64.2 years in 2018 (World Health Organisation) from 63.9 in 2017. The total fertility rate in 2015/16 was 4.4 children per woman down from 6.7 in 1992. Self-reported literacy (reading and writing in any language) is 81 percent for males and 66 percent for females (15+ years of age),” it says in a report.

But, save for this, poverty reigns.

“However, poverty and inequality remain stubbornly high. The national poverty rate increased slightly from 50.7 percent in 2010 to 51.5 percent in 2016, but extreme national poverty decreased from 24.5 percent in 2010/11 to 20.1 in 2016/17. Poverty is driven by poor performance of the agriculture sector, volatile economic growth, population growth, and limited opportunities in non-farm activities,” it says.

This means, again, conformity has had an effect even on progressive minds.

In fact, even the government seems innocent of any sense of responsibility; hence, Malawi has this year been ranked the fourth poorest country in the world by Global Finance Magazine of the United States.

A report, which the magazine released on April 17, indicates that almost all the top 10 poorest countries, all from Africa, have either recently been through a civil war or suffering from one form of violence or another.

“All these extremely fragile and underdeveloped economies have either recently been through a civil war or are suffering from ongoing sectarian or ethnic conflicts,” reads the report in part.

According to the magazine, Malawi’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita based on Purchasing-Power-Parity (PPP) is at $1,234, which is worse off than that of war-torn Mozambique, South Sudan and Liberia, which have GDP per capita-PPP of $1,331, $1,331 and $1,613, respectively.

The magazine, which got its data from the International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database for April 2019, says Malawi is only better off than war-torn Burundi, Central Africa Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are the three poorest countries in the world.

The magazine says Malawi’s per capita GDP, which went from about $975 in 2010 to $1,200 in 2018, is projected to reach $1,580 by 2024 but poverty remains widespread, as the country’s economy depends on rain-fed agriculture, which is vulnerable to weather-related shocks.

As expected, Chancellor College Economic Professor Ben Kalua has, this time around, blamed the country’s leadership for this state of affairs.

“We do not have visionary leadership; leaders who can make hard decisions for the country to move forward. Right now, I can say that we are in a quandary,” he said.

However, Minister of Information and government spokesperson, Henry Mussa, is hopeful.

He cites initiatives that the government has set in motion as panacea for socio-economic problems facing the country.

“It cannot be done overnight but we are revamping agriculture, we are into skills’ development and all that.

“Instead of wasting our time looking at reports which say we are poorer than, say, South Sudan, we should be hard-working and patriotic,” he said.

Hard work. Yes.

Patriotism. Yes.

But, maybe, leaders should also stop sneaking their interests into national development goals.

That way, prosperity may replace the current state of hopelessness and enliven Malawians’ often monotonous existence.

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