Former Norwegian ambassador to Malawi, Asbjorn Eidhammer, who left the country last week after an eight-year tour of duty, speaks to our Lilongwe Bureau Chief Sam Chunga about his stay in Malawi.
Q: How can you summarise your tour of duty to Malawi?
The years in Malawi have been eventful. I have seen politics develop from 1999, when democracy was uncertain and freedom was still very new, to much more mature political processes and to a population that is much more aware of their rights, and who demand these rights.
Q: How do you analyse the Malawi Government’s performance under five presidents over the past 50 years? Has the government consistently served its people well?
A: A big question. Certainly not consistently. Politicallly we know the story, with 30 years of dictatorship after a promising beginning. Thereafter democracy has been consolidated in spite of setbacks. The political crises have always been overcome in what I am tempted to say is a typical Malawian way. The country seems to come out of political crises with a strengthened democracy. But the crises have cost, not least in terms of goodwill and confidence, which also has had economic costs.
In economics, going back to the seventies and eighties, one will see shifts in policies, in particular when it concerns agriculture, at almost regular intervals. These policy changes, which often have been detrimental to economic development, have not always been domestic. They have often been highly influenced by development partners and international financial institutions.
Such changes have been one factor leading to a zigzag development, growth, crises, recovery, and then a new crisis. Of course other elements have been important, like the fluctuations in the international prizes of commodities and a globalisation which Malawi not yet has been able to take much advantage of. I have the hope that this situation is now changing.
Your government is among major aid donors for Malawi. Are you satisfied that the aid is fully benefitting Malawians at the grassroots?
We always strive for more efficient cooperation and better outcomes. But we can show results in a number of areas over the last ten years or so. I can only mention that we together with other partners have contributed to an amazing reduction in child mortality. We have contributed to a rapid expansion of training of doctors and nurses, which has improved the coverage of doctors in the districts substantively. During the last year hospitals have been able to operate partly due to Norwegian and Flemish assistance. In cooperation with Germany we are bringing down the figures for mothers dying while giving birth. Hundreds of prisoners have been assisted to get their cases tried instead of having to wait for long periods. Many of them have been freed. Thousands of women who have been victims of violence have been helped. I could go on. These results for ordinary people have been achieved by Malawian institutions and organisations with our assistance.
Q: If I am not mistaken, your government was the first to react to Malawi’s infamous cashgate by freezing budgetary assistance to Malawi under the Common Approach to Budgetary Support (CABS) arrangement. How come?
Budget support is based on a general trust in the financial management of government. Cashgate showed that we could not trust the system, and the looting was so serious that there was no doubt that we had to stop budget support. It is better to be straight with friends than let matters drag on.
Q: Under what circumstances do you foresee Norway resuming budgetary support to Malawi?
The future of budget support from bilaterals is uncertain. It is correct that people in the streets and villages most often suffer from cuts. That is why Norway has, as has other partners, found other ways of channelling our funds, so that they reach people. Or we have ring-fenced our support through the government, to prevent further misuse. Last year, we in fact increased our aid to Malawi with more than 50 percent. Through Unicef we provided drugs for the health facilities, through the World Food Programme we helped alleviate the food situation in areas hit by drought, and we directed our support to the Government’s health services directly to hospitals. This is just to mention a few areas. What is important is that we do not walk away when faced with difficulties; we adapt and make necessary changes in our way of working.
Q: Do you see Malawi bouncing back from the devastating effects of cashgate?
If not bouncing back, at least recovering. The old as well as the new government have worked hard to introduce new and improved systems of financial governance, in addition to do the auditing and investigations that are necessary following cashgate. But there is a more fundamental problem. The government institutions are weak and underfunded. That is not necessarily a result of lack of commitment, as I have heard many people say. These institutions get their share, it is only that the “cake” to be shared is so low.
The resource base for any government in Malawi is very limited. The government budget is only a third of Zambia’s budget, with Malawi having a higher population. This means that a very hard priority setting is necessary. Development aid for better financial management as well as in key areas like health and education will continue to be necessary if progress is to be made. With such aid, Malawi will not bounce back, but slowly be able to build up capacity and confidence. But for that to happen, the government will have to take the lead.
Q: Do you plan to be the usual great ‘ambassador’ for Malawi, in marketing this nation and its people, wherever you will be posted?
I will certainly not forget Malawi. There are hundreds and more people in Norway who have worked in or visited Malawi over the last 10 to 15 years. Amazingly, many of them stay in touch and are involved in activities in Malawi in one way or another. I expect my wife and I will be among them.
Q: Do you have any parting words for Malawian leaders and their people?
I believe the boost and reform of the civil service is a number one priority. The government must have the tool, and the people expect good services. The new government seems to be tackling this issue head on. Further, there is a need for stability in the economic policies, so that investments can increase and people see economic growth. The potential is there. Then there is education. This is a long term task, but it is absolutely essential if the young generations are to find work and be productive.