Don’t nationalise poverty

Honourable Folks, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has been ignored for nearly 50 years we’ve been an independent sovereign state. Yet there’s no denying that development shall remain elusive as long as over half the 14 million Malawians are in extreme poverty as is the case now.

The irony of it all is that we are now only two years to 2015, the UN set target for halving world severe poverty through the Millennium Development Goals programme. Between 2005 and 2010, when the economy was growing at 7 percent a year on average, the rate of abject poverty was portrayed in the decline.

If my memory serves me right, there was a time around 2009 when the Mutharika administration claimed the rate of abject poverty had gone down to below 30 percent. In retrospect, we’ve a good reason to doubt that claim, especially after it became known that the same regime lied about the success of its zero-deficit budget strategy.

It’s possible that abject poverty was hovering above 30 percent at that time. Where there’s no dispute is that the majority of the people had food for the greater part of the year and the number of those living on less than a dollar a day was gradually declining.

Now many of our people who were getting out of the poverty web have tripped back to dire poverty. Whether we like it or not, that is how Malawi shall be by the time we celebrate our 50th Independence anniversary next year—an extremely poor country with over half of its population unable to provide for themselves basic necessities such as food, shelter and clothing.

Politicians always talk about introducing poverty reduction programmes while, at the same time, they exploit the poor—giving them food and money and demand unflinching loyalty in return. Gullible traditional leaders are exploited the same way.

Women have throughout our history as an independent sovereign State always dominated on the arena where they dance for the State President and other party leaders but they have always been a miserable minority when it comes to occupying positions of influence in the party hierarchy or the public sector.

The youth—the so-called leaders of tomorrow—are probably the major losers. Very little is being done to improve the quality of their education, many graduates end up roaming the streets jobless yet politicians see nothing wrong in exploiting them to serve as cheerleaders at their party meetings or to inflict pain on their real or imaginary political enemies.

But there is also another group that politicians exploit—casual and semi-skilled workers. From the days of Kamuzu, these have always been grossly underpaid mainly so that politicians can sell Malawi to investors as haven for cheap labour. This is done by keeping the minimum wage extremely low.

To ensure stability among such grossly underpaid folks, government deliberately regulates the maize market, thereby impoverishing the majority of subsistent farmers who grow the staple crop.

Consequently, a lot of potential energy for development is bottled up in the web of abject poverty. These become more vulnerable to reforms and austerity measures as is currently the case.

So, what’s the way forward? Some folks think government should narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots by increasing the tax-free band to K40 000 or more to mitigate the impact of economic reforms on the poor and make up for the loss in revenue by increasing the tax rate of those earning K400 000 by at least 10 percentage points.

I wish I had a glimpse of the 2013 budget before advancing my argument but the wise in our society regarded as a fool the person who slaughtered the goose that lay the egg. Already, Malawi has a very narrow market for investors who create jobs and pay the bulk of the domestic taxes to government.

There’s a need to nurture the emerging middle class and encourage the spirit of saving. There is also need to depart from spending a lot of money feeding the poor and instead use such money in empowering them to feed and provide for themselves.

Government should simply cut down drastically on its spending and fight corruption. Otherwise, we shall wake up some day and discover government has nationalised poverty.

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