One does not need complicated gross domestic product (GDP) statistics to realise how static our development path has been after almost 60 years of independence. Just drive down the Malindi-Mangochi Road or the Lilongwe-Salima Road and you will be greeted by evidence of our collective failure to lift millions of Malawians from abject poverty. Row upon row of ramshackle grass-thatched houses that have stood on the sides of our road for decades continue to remind us of just how hollow are the much trumpeted claims of “divolopumenti” and “houses that do not leak”. Walk through the backroads and shortcuts of Bangwe and Ntandile and you will be greeted by the sight of barely standing toilets poised at precarious angles and fashioned from throw away timber and sacks. What happened? How come the promise of independence has not delivered for most of our citizens?
I would like to suggest that one key reason for our collective failure to deliver significant progress is a permissive culture that allows incompetent individuals to continue serving in key posts in our public institutions. For far too long, we have allowed non-performance and encouraged the bureaucracy to be filled with individuals whose sole motivation for turning up is a salary at the end of the month and the occasional opportunity for Cashgate. For a country with problems such as ours, we need officers that have the imagination and drive to transform these ramshackle dwellings into safe housing; to change these dangerous toilet facilities into dignified and safe structures. I know this is a tough indictment against many a public officer so I will give a few examples to illustrate the point.
Take the case of Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) for example. For many years, the corporation has consistently failed to deliver on its key mandate and yet no executive officer has ever been fired for these failures. We hear of excuses and explanations including low river levels, deforestation and the odd monkey interference. Yet these problems are known, so why are we not finding a solution to them? Why is Escom investing billions in grid extension when it has no electricity to put in the grid in the first place? Does the current management at the institution have the drive and vision to deliver power all day every day?
Often, when public officers make glaring mistakes there are no repercussions. They are still guaranteed their jobs.
Similarly, a number of parastatal organisations have illegally given money to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) flouting both their founding statutes and possibly the Corrupt Practices Act. Yet none of the officers involved expects any repercussions from these missteps. In fact, were it not for civil society organisations taking up the issue, you would not have heard of it. Will responsible officers of state take action regarding this? Your guess is as good as mine.
Take a look around you at the infrastructure projects that have been delivered to central government and our local authorities. Whilst most of it is of a high standard, there are glaring examples of lack of thought and imagination that speak to lazy design and procurement and a failure to imagine the future. For example, it is a known fact that many of our citizens use bicycles to get around whether in the rural areas or our cities and yet many of new roads make no provision for safe riding forcing cyclists to fight for spaces on the carriage way with 40-tonne trucks. Drive on a major highways around the country and you still find single carriage bridges on these fast roads. What kind of saving is this? A large number of recently tarmarked roads in our townships are of such poor quality that they are barely better than what was before them. Should people presiding over these projects still be in their roles?
Beyond these examples is the broader question of what our vision for our nation ought to be and who takes responsibility for it: Do we have the right people who can imagine a Malawi that competes with the best in the world? Do we have officers who imagine their roles beyond being mere facilitators for the projects of the so-called development partners? We should not brook officers who spend most of their time sharing silly WhatsApp memes instead of ensuring that the little we have is utilised imaginatively and effectively. For a country with as many problems as ours, we do not need ministers and civil service officers who take no responsibility for the performance of their offices.
The reason we do not have a culture of performance is principally because many of those in charge of critical functions fear the implications of such an approach for their own positions. Whilst the argument that performance-focused management will yield results is simple to make, unless those heading our institutions take responsibility for failures, we will forever be stuck on this path of non-development. We need to start firing the incompetents.
*The author is from Bangwe and sometimes teaches law