‘Malawi’s future is certainly bright’

‘A sense to look after one another’ is what US ambassador VIRGINIA PALMER will take back home with her from Malawi. She is concluding her tenure of office in Malawi after almost four years. She talks to Weekend Nation deputy editor, MOSES MICHAEL-PHIRI in this special interview:

As you leave office, what are the enduring moments you take from here?

Palmer: I have lots of happy memories of Malawi

My most enduring memories are of Malawi’s wonderful people: Postani, who walks 12 kilometers every day to attend an online university programme; Jacques who lives in Dzaleka Refugee Camp and works to improve the lives of both refugees in the camp and Malawians in surrounding communities; Memory, who campaigns for girls rights; Chikondi, who ran a project teaching families the importance of good sanitation and is now studying to be a clinical officer…I could go on.  And all of these Malawians are under 30; Malawi’s future is certainly bright! 

When I reflect back over the Embassy’s work of the last four-and-a-half years, I think I am proudest of the work the United States [US] has helped Malawi do to empower Adolescent Girls and Young Women [AGYW], the fulcrum of all of Malawi’s development goals.  With US support, Malawi was the first country in Africa to launch a comprehensive AGYW Strategy. 

I’m so happy that we will use Pepfar and other US government fundings to build up to 200 high schools in Malawi.  This will keep kids, particularly girls [only 10 percent of whom finish secondary school], in school.  The Government of Malawi’s waiving of secondary school tuition fees will be incredibly helpful to this effort.  I believe Malawi’s example will demonstrate that keeping girls in school will reduce their lifetime risk of HIV and serve as an important example for the rest of Africa.   Many of these students will develop the tools needed to succeed in secondary school through US support for Malawi’s National Reading Programme, which, as First Lady Melania Trump witnessed first-hand last October, for the first time, put English and Chichewa textbooks in the hands of every grade Standard 1-4 student nationwide. 

I’m also very proud that through the relentless efforts of American and Malawian health professionals, Malawi is now on the cusp of controlling the HIV/Aids epidemic.  Together we have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, prevented tens of thousands of HIV infections, and transformed the Aids response from death and despair to life and hope.  Looking forward, with US support, Malawi has implemented innovative programs to ensure that Malawians know their status, obtain treatment and suppress the virus. 

Finally [but I could go on!], I’m proud that the United States helped provide food to Malawi after the 2015 floods, the 2016 el Nino drought and after the terrible floods this year.  Implementing Malawi’s Resilience Strategy, the only such whole-of-government strategy in the region, is critical, as are agricultural reforms like a Seed Act and a Fertiliser Act, to break this cycle of food insecurity.  

The US, UK and other western countries have stressed so much financial prudence. Are you impressed with the efforts Malawi Government has made in improving the Public Finance Management System described once by your colleagues as “a leaking bucket?”

The Government of Malawi has made impressive strides to improve Public Finance Management [PFM] since the Cashgate scandal.  Through implementing reforms and adopting judicious macro-economic policies, the Government has tamed inflation, reduced interest rates, stabilised the exchange rate and controlled external debt.  At the same time, I think all would agree that more work is needed.

Building on the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability assessments, I encourage the government to implement much-need PFM reforms, including passing and implementing the draft revised PFM Act.  At the same time, the PFM bill’s strong enforcement language should not undermine the freedoms of NGOs, which play a critical role in ensuring accountability.  To strengthen accountability processes, such as audits, the Government must gazette the newly amended Public Audit Act of 2018, empower the National Audit Office and address weaknesses highlighted in completed audits [i.e. audits must have consequences].  Finally, I strongly urge the Government to revamp its public procurement process to ensure transparency and fairness.   Too often, we read about secretive and irregular procurements that feed corruption and take needed resources from Malawi’s development.

The US plays a major role in the health sector where some corruption issues—such as drug pilferage—emerged. What have been the achievements in this sector?

Since 2003, the U.S. government has invested over $1 billion in Malawi’s efforts to combat the HIV epidemic, over $300 million to tackle malaria, over $100 million to combat TB, and over $200 million to improve laboratory capacity and combat other infectious diseases. 

We have also contributed a third of the $1 billion Malawi has received from the Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria.  Through this investment, by the end of 2018, the US government has helped reach over 805 000 Malawians with life-saving HIV treatment, while life expectancy in Malawi has increased from about 45 years in 2000 at the height of the HIV epidemic to 65 today.  U.S. investments in maternal and child health, family planning, malaria, water and sanitation, and nutrition have contributed to steady declines in child illness and death [since 2004 the under-five mortality rate has been more than halved] as well as a marked decrease in stunting.

However, theft and pilferage limit Malawi’s health gains, deprive Malawians of life-saving medicines and steal funds from US and Malawian taxpayers. I appreciate Ministry of Health efforts to bring thieves to justice.  From 2016 to March 2019 the Government of Malawi identified 233 cases for prosecution and obtained 167 convictions.  I urge all Malawian citizens to join forces with their nation’s health and law enforcement authorities to stop drug theft and fully implement the amended Pharmacy and Medicines Regulation Act.

What memories do you take from Malawi?

I love my job so my personal and professional memories are sort of combined.  I was very moved when we visited Mitawa village.  Eight years ago, Mitawa was one of the poorest villages in the area.  We provided “food for work” assistance to help the village improve its water management.  Now, their borehole has water all year round, fields are irrigated and there are aquaculture ponds and even solar electricity.  When villages along the valley needed food assistance after the 2016 drought, Mitawa was able to feed itself.  When I visited the village three years after our programme had ended, the Village Headman didn’t ask for additional assistance.  He said “Thank you for what you have taught us.  Please teach someone else.”

I also loved watching the largest wildlife relocation in history—from Liwonde and Majete to Nkhotakhota. I got to go in the helicopter and even touch the elephants after they were darted.  I was filled with admiration for Malawi’s rangers and the work that African Parks and Wildlife have done protect this precious resource.  I’m happy that the United States is assisting Malawi’s wildlife and environmental conservation efforts. 

I have many happy memories of Lake Malawi—another treasure that must be protected. But I remember the first time I visited the lake:  after some great snorkeling to see Malawi’s famous cichlids, I returned to sit on the porch of the house we rented.  Only then did I notice a sign that said “Beware of crocodiles.  Do not swim at night.  If you are taken by a croc, try and grab its leg….”  I was glad that I saw it after a wonderful day of swimming.    And, man, I have lots of happy memories of wonderful dances in villages across Malawi!

What will be your rating on Malawi’s fight against corruption; is there optimism?

The African Union [AU] estimates that Africa has lost hundreds of billions of dollars to corruption—hundreds of billions that was not invested in education, infrastructure, or security.  Bribes and corruption keep people in poverty.  They encourage inequality and they undercut citizens’ faith in their own government.  Legitimate investment stays away.  Malawi cannot afford this.

I believe that Public Sector Reform Programme [PSRP]will be one of President Mutharika’s legacies and hope that he will reinvigorate Public Sector Reform efforts, which languished after a robust start in 2015.  The payroll needs to be cleaned and poor performers and thieves who misuse public funds must be sacked so Malawi’s talented civil service can provide the services Malawians need and demand. 

Passage of the draft Public Service Bill prepared earlier this year and full implementation of the Access to Information and Public Procurement laws are crucial.  Accountability institutions like the Anti-Corruption Bureau [ACB] must be fully funded and fully staffed.  Accountability is essential.  For example, we cannot fund Ministry of Health programs directly because we continue to wait for final resolution on the disciplining of Ministry of Health officials found in 2015 to have misappropriated US government funds.  I am confident that Malawians are eager to see the companies and individuals identified in the 87 case files, which the National Audit Office to the ACB months ago, prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

One of the landmarks during your term was the implementation of the MCC compact? Are you, so far, satisfied with how Malawi took the challenge?

I’m very proud of the work Malawi and the United States did to make Malawi’s Millennium Challenge Compact-MCC [providing for power sector reform, upgrading existing power generation and installing vastly improved transmission lines and improved riverine management], one of the most successful MCC Compacts in the world.  It’s very important that the Compact’s reforms, including governance improvements at Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi [Escom], are continued so that Escom remains financially viable. 

The Compact laid an important foundation for greater private sector investment in power generation which will electrify the Malawian economy, encouraging investment (and job creation) in manufacturing and agriculture.  I hope Malawi will someday soon be able to sell power to the Southern African power grid.  Critically, the success of Malawi’s compact and Malawi’s high scores on the MCC scorecard (which includes things like macro-economic stability, fighting corruption and free press and civil society and is reassessed every year) meant that Malawi is eligible for a second Compact. Over the next two years, we will work with the Malawian government and stakeholders to identify constraints on economic growth and develop a new compact to unlock them. 


You are leaving at a time Malawians, have voted in Peter Mutharika again, what is your parting word to this new government?


This is a critical time for Malawi and an opportunity for a second Mutharika administration.  I hope the government will both stay the course [maintaining tight fiscal policy and preserving macroeconomic stability] and do more and with greater urgency [on fully implementing Public Sector Reform, fighting corruption and ensuring real accountability, reforming inefficient parastatals and programs like the FISP that are not achieving their objectives and drain resources from development spending].    With scarce resources, only expenditures that contribute to development should be funded.  And—mlendo ndiye amadza ndikalumo kakuthwa—we cannot be satisfied with beautifully crafted laws and policy.  Full —and speedy—implementation is critical. 

Lastly, who will take over from you and where is he/she coming from?

My friend Ambassador Robert Scott will arrive from Washington D.C. in July as the new US Ambassador.  Ambassador Scott has extensive regional experience, having served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

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