I came to know British High Commissioner Michael Nevin in the early 2000s. That time he was working for the British High Commission in Lilongwe as Secretary for Chancery (Political, Press and Public Affairs).
That time, I was a reporter on the current affairs desk at Nation Publications Limited (NPL) based in Blantyre. We knew each other on a professional level, but later became friends such that everytime Nevin visited Blantyre, he would call me and several journalists for either a drink or dinner at some of the upmarket restaurants in Blantyre.
During such outings, we used to mix business with pleasure, discussing a wide range of issues from politics to the economy.
Diplomats by nature tend to speak in coded language such that one needs to read between the lines to expound the meaning they are putting across. British Second World War Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill said this about diplomacy: “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”
Personally, I have interacted with several diplomats who call a spade by its name. They usually talk straight to the point. Nevin is one of them; hence, I was not surprised to hear him tell it like it is that it is time Malawi became economically independent.
In his keynote address to a youth forum in Lilongwe last Friday, good old Nevin said it is high time Malawi changed its perception of looking at its former colonial master, Britain, as its mother and move away from dependency.
In his words, Nevin said: “The connotation of mother is one of dependency. So, we need to move away from that psychological thinking of one of dependency to one of doing things as an equal partner of the UK and also doing things for yourself.”
I cannot agree more. Basically, Nevin is not reinventing the wheel. Several commentators, including yours truly, have emphasised the need for our country to be economically independent after 49 years of self-rule. But, as they say, timadikira mzungu kuti anene (when it is said by a white man, it is taken seriously).
Forty-nine years is a very long, long way by any standard. It is embarrassing that as a country, we still depend on taxpayers in rich economies such as Britain to finance our affairs, including the development budget. In 2011, former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika, attempted to fund our expenditures with predominantly local resources. Sadly, the concept, apparently made out of anger and emotion after a diplomatic fall-out with Britain, has since been abandoned.
For example, in the 2013/14 National Budget, donor grants are projected at 40 percent of the total domestic revenue plus grants, up from 31.5 percent in the 2012/13 budget which was, of course, later revised to 39.6 percent. This is besides the fact that 80 percent of our development budget depends on donors.
Now, the danger is that if the donors withhold their funds (based on their own opinions or wishes or indeed interests), contributed by their taxpayers, then all our plans fall by the wayside. Remember, he who pays the piper calls the tune!
Honestly, this dependency syndrome does not reflect seriousness on our part 49 years later and counting.
We do not need Nevin and company to remind us that ‘life begins at 40’ for us to put in place measures to meet most of our needs. Financial independence gives one diginity. Let us as a country have diginity.
Ironically, most of the challenges facing the country, especially on the economic front, have come against a background of several prescriptions from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Yet, despite all this, Malawi has lagged behind other countries such as Mauritius with whom it was on equal footing in terms of economic growth in the 1960s.
Thank you Your Excellency Michael Nevin for the gentle reminder. With elections around the corner in mid 2014, I hope contesting parties will heed the advise and outline in their manifestos how they plan to move Malawi from the culture of dependency to independence in the next 50 years.