‘Malawi should break the poverty cycle’

Mia Seppo, the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has completed her tour of duty in Malawi after four years and five months of leading the UN system in support of the Malawi Government national development agenda. Our reporter FATSANI GUNYA caught up with Seppo before catching her flight out to give some highlights of her work in the country. Excerpts:

Seppo: Malawi is making progress in regaining donor confidence

What was your initial reaction when you first learnt you would be heading the mission in Malawi then?

Malawi caught my interest from the very beginning as a country known for its peace and for being the “Warm Heart of Africa”. Yet, I was puzzled by her poor performance on many socio-economic indicators. In fact, on quite a few, Malawi was not doing better than Sierra Leone, my previous duty station, which had been through a brutal civil war. I was interested in understanding the poverty dynamics in Malawi, a non-crisis country, often ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index [HDI] among a group of mostly crisis countries. This presented the challenge for how the UN working with others can better support Malawi and similar countries in getting out of the poverty trap.

 Can you say the Malawi you found is the Malawi you are leaving behind?

The Malawi I found was getting ready for elections. The Malawi I leave is again getting ready for elections. The interesting question to ask is what has been achieved during the intervening years between elections when the focus has been on moving the development agenda forward. I believe there are a number of achievements to build on. I believe that there is greater optimism, commitment and understanding that Malawi needs to make efforts to break the poverty cycle, and while partners can help, it is Malawians that matter most in making those changes.

 What has changed? Were you impressed? And what can you identify as Malawi’s strength that the country can/should build on in growing its socio-economic development?

Malawi is a peaceful and politically stable country that has witnessed five successive, elections since the advent of multi-party politics in 1994. Democratic stability is a critical factor for domestic and foreign investment and needs to be maintained and to progress.

Malawi has independent and constitutionally established oversight institutions: Malawi Human Rights Commission, Office of the Ombudsman, Anti-Corruption Bureau, Office of the Auditor General to name a few. These institutions provide a solid foundation to build on so long as their independence and effectiveness is continuously improved and maintained.

Malawi is endowed with a variety of soils, climates, and natural resources and large fresh water bodies capable of supporting irrigation that can foster high agricultural productivity and food security while her mineral resources have potential to spur economic growth. The ability to upscale agricultural productivity to commercial levels is a vital endeavour to pursue to improve food availability and job creation in the agriculture sector.

The high population growth in Malawi and its roughly 17 million inhabitants provide a healthy workforce and build the foundation for a large domestic market. However, population dynamics need to be managed given the pressure from a rapidly growing population on the environment and social services.

Robust policies and strategies such as the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III [being finalised], the National Social Support Programme, the National Resilience Strategy, National Agriculture Policy, and National Irrigation Policy are capable of driving socio-economic development in Malawi. Their impact will depend on how good the coordination between them and how effective their implementation will be. The legislative agenda has also moved forward. We can look at the Access to Information Act, Financial Crimes Act, gender related laws, and the Land Bills, among others, as important pieces of legislation that will have a great impact when implemented.

Finally, I am pleased by the growing awareness on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Various ministries, civil society and youth groups contact the UN or take action themselves to raise awareness and make the SDGs relevant for Malawi. This is encouraging and a budding strength for Malawi.

Malawi has had about three regimes while you served the mission. How can you rate them in terms of democracy and good governance?

I arrived in Malawi in April 2013, so I have worked with two administrations.  The consolidation of democracy in Malawi since the inception of multi-party democracy in 1994 should ideally be a movement forward without too many reversals. Far reaching reforms and fighting poverty demand a long-term commitment and continuity from one administration to the next.

As examples of continuity, we started working on the Development Cooperation Strategy and the National Export Strategy under the Joyce Banda administration and this work continued under the Arthur Peter Mutharika administration.  Joyce Banda advanced the longstanding discussion on the Access to Information Bill which was then approved by the Mutharika administration—a great step forward for access to information not just for the media but for the public.

Joyce Banda, as a gender equality advocate, created a legal foundation for the advancement of gender equality and women’s empowerment in Malawi through the adoption of the Gender Equality Act [2013]. Subsequently, the current administration and President Mutharika, as a “He for She” Champion, built on this progress with the adoption of the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Act [2015],  the Trafficking in Persons Act [2015] and  the  Constitutional Amendment raising the age of marriage [2015]. Today, Malawi has a set of gender related laws that can make a significant difference in transforming the lives of women and girls, if implemented well.  In a landmark development, the Malawi Government recently enacted 10 land related laws which can have transformational impact.

However, Malawi is often referred to as a country that is ‘policy rich but implementation poor’. This sentiment has not changed much from one administration to the next. I believe past, current and future administrations in Malawi, and its partners, need to make sure that the good policies on paper are turned into implementation that makes a real difference in people’s lives. Only then can we talk about real results, not just results on paper.

Malawi goes to the polls in two years’ time. Can you please share your insights ahead of elections in terms of how best the country needs to conduct them?

The normative shift towards considering elections as a cycle, rather than an event, is taking hold in Malawi and lots of work is taking place before the polls. This includes administrative reforms in Malawi Electoral Commission [MEC] and electoral reforms. On the former, the new Board of Commissioners appear committed to reforming the institution. I believe the on-going efforts and a new round of development partner support will lead to a stronger Commission that has the trust of the citizens—candidates and voters alike. A key area of work under our current partnership with MEC will support MEC’s strategic and operational capacities, with a focus on voter education, results transmission, logistical planning and conflict mitigation. I believe this will ensure we do not see a repeat of some of the shortcomings of past elections. And let’s hope 2019 will see an increase in the number of female representatives.

On electoral reforms, I hope that there will be consensus around a set of reforms when the Parliament sits in November and considers the recommendations by the Special Law Commission on their review of electoral laws. These reforms will impact the electoral process itself and will need to be integrated into MEC’s operational plan, hence the importance of Parliament not to delay the passing of the relevant Bills and Acts.

The 2019 election will see the advent of the national ID as the main source of identification of eligible voters to register and vote. That said, mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that eligible voters who do not have an ID can register to vote during the MEC-managed voter registration. Using the national IDs will lead to considerable cost savings and a more credible voter registry.

As a final comment on the forthcoming elections, it is important that everyone plays their role in the process to give a chance to a peaceful and credible polling process. The media need to engage in responsible journalism, political parties and citizens need to respect one another’s right to a different opinion as part of the democratic process and, in that way, there can be elections which will consolidate Malawi’s path to democratic governance and long-lasting peace and stability.

What can you say was your greatest/ landmark achievement since you took up the post here?

I think others are better placed to answer that question than me. I’m pleased to have been part of coordinating the humanitarian responses to the needs of vulnerable Malawians during both the 2015 floods and the 2016-2017 lean season food and nutrition insecurity. The 2016-2017 lean season response was the longest and biggest response in Malawi in over a decade. All involved can be proud of supporting 6.7 million Malawians who faced food insecurity in that time. Malawi has made good progress in re-thinking how to deal with the cyclical nature of disasters and responses with a stronger focus on preparedness and building resilience.

I am also pleased to have been part of the effort that led to the partnership around national registration and ensuring all Malawians have a national ID.

The Cashgate saga that came to light in 2012 is said to have dented Malawi’s image in the eyes of the international community, especially donor partners. Is the country now doing enough to win back that lost confidence?

Undoubtedly, it is true that the discovery of the fiscal fraud also known as Cashgate led to a loss in donor confidence. I think it dented the trust of Malawians in their institutions too which is equally important. On the partner side, the financial management crisis led to the channeling of donor resources around government systems, making it hard for government to execute its programmes.

That said, the country is making progress in regaining donor confidence. I believe a more honest discussion is emerging about how together, development partners and the Government of Malawi, can work to decrease aid dependency in Malawi over time.

What personal memories of Malawi are you taking to your next mission in Bangladesh?

I am not only leaving Malawi, I am leaving Africa, a continent that I have had the privilege to work with for over a decade. I will take with me the smiling faces of children, the patience of the people, the beautiful nature, the open skies. I will take with me the view from Nkhoma Mountain where the landscape captures all that Malawi is, rugged, a bit rough on the edges, but full of potential and hope for a better future for all. n

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