The political debate in Malawi tends to be very limited. It is about singular decisions and singular people. But what we see happening is a repetition of the same problems: a President taking increasingly erratic decisions, a press and CSO that criticize. A President declaring he does not read the newspapers (as if that is some kind of achievement) and taking increasingly draconian measures to stop the criticism (not to solve the problems that cause the criticism). We see a ruling class that evades accountability, look at the fate of the ATI bill. Once enacted it would facilitate an important accountability mechanism.
We see rising corruption, increased self enrichment at the top and increased poverty at the bottom. At the moment, through the combined causes of inept government policy, freeze of budget support (and a government that does little to win it back) and adverse weather conditions that the food situation for the poor is worse than in many years.
We have seen all this before. We saw Muluzi going off track. We saw Bingu wa Mutharika going off track. We saw Joyce Banda going off track. And now we see Arthur Peter Mutharika doing the same thing. This means that we cannot limit our debate to the details. The details, such as increased allocation for state residences combined with a lowering of the allocations for the critical sectors of health and education are important and need to be addressed. But we see that our efforts (press, PAC, public debates, CSOs etc) are falling on deaf ears as they did with previous governments.
This repetition of the problems means that we need to look at the system that causes governments (and Presidents) to act in this way. We need to look at the way decisions are arrived at. What are the considerations for these weird looking decisions? This is hard to find out because the authorities are often silent (like with the cabinet reshuffle) or they feed us obvious lies as when the President announced the tabling of the ATI bill, or announced there was plenty of maize in the country. The same with Chiyembekeza (minister of agriculture and food security) telling us that Admarc buys maize late because they wait for it to be completely dry. We all know it is because of a lack of funds and a lack of foresight to make the funds available in time. Still he holds on to the lie. Now this way, even though we know he is lying, we get no information out of him other than what he wants us to believe.
This way we never get to know the machinations in the ruling circles, and we are prevented from analyzing the ways of the powerful, so we cannot interfere with their doings, good or bad.
Because of the limitations of the debate, both with opposition and with CSOs the debate is embedded in the structures of power. The people come and go, but the structures remain as ineffective as they are. And that is where the real problem lies. We need a major shift in the power structures in the country to have a chance at development.
We need a widening of the debate to the structural problems. But it seems the capacity for that type of debate is lacking (obviously I am not referring to debates about simple majority versus first-past-the-post or federalism). We need analysis of the scale of Karl Marx’ Communist Manifesto, or Marcuses “One dimensional Man”. Or liberation theology. Something of the level of the ANC analysis of apartheid South Africa.
Our problem is that our thinkers do not go deep enough. They are not schooled in that type of thinking. Our university students are required to read some books, but many don’t and still pass their exams. And few who read them internalize the critical theory to a level that they are capable of applying it to Malawi. And that is just what we need. (Remember: our Unima came second last in a ranking of African universities. And when they heard it, the Unima authorities adapted, not by improving our university but by calculating in a different way, so the Unima came a few places higher in the ranking, but still horribly low. An our private universities are of even lower quality)
And it is not just our universities. Our whole education system is so low quality we have a very badly skilled population. Badly skilled for the workplace, and badly skilled for analyzing power structures and finding ways of attacking the challenges. Which takes us back to the reason why there is more money for the Presidential Palaces and less for education: the current ruling class wants to stay in the rung class, they do not want a population so well educated they are capable of challenging the powers-that-be.
Let’s lift up the level of the debate to a structural level. I do not claim to have the answers, but I do think I have addressed a big challenge in our efforts at development.