Malawi celebrates 50 years of independence

But the occasion is marred by the southern African country’s continued poverty and reliance on donor aid.

Malawi's economy is dependent on agriculture, especially the tobacco industry [AFP/Getty Images]

Blantyre, Malawi – Eighty-two-year-old Harry Maseko remembers vividly how Malawi gained its independence  from Britain on July 6, 50 years ago. 

“I just married my late wife. It was a lease of life for those of us who felt the heat of living under the rule of colonial masters. It was freedom coming just in time,” he says.

This years independence anniversary coincides with Malawis celebrations marking 20 years of multi-party democracy.

Maseko has fond memories of the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the country’s first leader who was known as the “father and founder” of Malawi.

Yet the octogenarian says the country has made limited progress since its independence. “To tell you the truth, I cannot point out the benefit of being independent for 50 years, with the exception of 20 years ago, when we were able to fight for and won the freedom of expression, which was suppressed by [Banda’s] autocratic rule. But freedom without food on the table is nothing,” he says.

Maseko, a subsistence farmer in southern Malawi, is one of many people in the country who live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.

Five decades after independence, the country’s economy remains fragile. Malawi still relies on donor aid to finance about 40 percent of its budget. As the anniversary of Malawi’s independence approaches, the country’s poverty and dependence on foreign aid are being hotly debated in the media.


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Commentators have largely blamed Malawi’s economic mess on its political leaders. “It’s disappointing and pathetic for a country that has been independent for five decades to still be struggling to feed its population, in a country endowed by fresh waters from the third-largest lake [Lake Malawi] in Africa,” says renowned socio-economic commentator Henry Kachaje.

Kachaje, also the managing director of Business Consult Africa, explains that only 10 percent of the population has access to electricity and that the country is a net importer that depends heavily on tobacco for its foreign exchange. 

“Lack of visionary leadership, especially in the last two decades,” has impeded Malawi’s economic growth, Kachaje says.

Since gaining its independence, Malawi has been governed by five presidents, each of whom introduced new development initiatives. “The problem we have had is on policy inconsistency where one time, [a] certain government says ‘we should do this’, and another one changes that and goes into something else. So policy inconsistencies have not helped us grow our economy,” says Malawian Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe.

Gondwe adds that the country’s limited natural resources are also not conducive to economic growth. “We are not as favoured as Zambia which has extractive industry in mining,” he says. “We don’t have that so we lag behind in forging ahead.”

Gondwe, however, says Malawi’s economy hasn’t always been doom and gloom. “If you look at where we began and where we have come, I think there are a number of successes made.” In 2009, Malawi’s economy registered about nine percent annual growth, and in 2008 it was the second fastest-growing economy in the world, behind Qatar.

Malawi also enjoyed a surplus of maize after the late President Bingu wa Mutharika introduced a farm subsidy programme in 2005.

Gondwe says the new government under President Peter Mutharika has outlined plans that would help the county escape its reliance on donor aid.

“We would like now to go into irrigation agriculture. We call that [the] green belt initiative that would help us to increase and diversify production. We would like to develop our mining sector,” he says, so that it will be as big as the country’s agriculture sector. According to Gondwe, the country also aims to produce value-added products like processed tea and tobacco.

Ben Kalua, a professor of economics at the University of Malawi, says Malawi has been experiencing economic challenges because of poorly conceived agricultural policies. Kalua says Malawi has relied on small-scale agriculture for too long. “If we seriously engage and take advantage of [the] booming airline and railway industry, we should be on our way out quite quickly,” he says.

Common Approach to Budget Support (CABS) is a group of donors that gave aid to Malawi’s government until the Cashgate Scandal emerged, in which millions of dollars were pilfered from government coffers. This spurred CABS to suspend aid to Malawi.

Alexander Baum, the chairman of CABS, says Malawi needs to focus on policies to support economic growth in order to become economically independent. “I think if the country can maintain a growth figure of, let’s say, seven to nine percent for a period of five to ten years, you will see that the country will seriously migrate from donor aid dependence.”

In his inaugural speech in May, Mutharika cautiously said his administration was committed to see Malawi move out of donor dependency.

“This is a gradual process,” Mutharika said. “We need to expand our economic base first… We cannot completely move out in one go.”

Source: Al Jazeera