The poverty and wealth of nations

The man I never get tired of quoting is Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States (US). At the age of 20, he ventured into business as a printer in Philadelphia. By the time he was 45, he had prospered enough to retire from business and engage in science, an exercise that led him to invent an electric rod.

To those who asked how he had acquired his wealth, Franklin responded: “In short, the way to wealth if you desire it, is as plain as the way to the market. It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality. That is, waste neither time nor money.”

Franklin’s advice was meant for individuals, but it is relevant to nations because the wealth of a nation is the sum total of the wealth of individuals. One man who may have taken heed of Franklin’s advice was Paul Kruger, President of the Tranvaal, South Africa.

In his autobiography God is Truth, the father of Indian independence Mahatma Ghandi wrote: “The consequences of the regulation regarding the use of footpaths were rather serious for me. I always went out for a walk through President Street to open plain, President Kruger’s house was in this street a very modest unostentatious building, without a garden and not distinguishable from other houses in its neighbourhood.

“The houses of many of the millionaires in Pretoria were far more pretentious, and were surrounded by gardens. Indeed, President Kruger’s simplicity was proverbial. Only the presence of a police patrol before the house indicated that it belonged to some top official.”

We are not asking Presidents of Malawi to adopt the simplicity of Kruger or for that reason Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Nyerere. But we feel grateful when a president decides not to attend an international conference and instead send one of his ministers in order to economise on expense involved.

When our Presidents meet foreign businesspeople on visits abroad, they are given diplomatic promises regarding investments. Let us not be over optimistic.

The promises that businesspeople give our delegation they also give to delegations of other countries. Whether those will be fulfilled by 50 percent it is difficult to say. Therefore, every journey abroad should be subjected to cost and benefit analyses.

Some officials incur unnecessary expenditures because they are infected with the mountaineer’s disease called “it is there”. What is that? A stranger arrived at a village close to a mountain and told the villagers he had come to climb their mountain. “Why do you want to climb it,” they asked him. “Because the mountain is there,” he responded.

The officials look into estimates book and notice that the money which Parliament provided is there not yet spent. Because of that alone they decide to spend it even if the need for which it was provided is no longer a pressing one or some other problem has risen deserving use of that money.

From the radio voice of very ordinary people, we have heard protests at the purchase of four vehicles for the three Speakers of Parliament and leader of Opposition. The protestors say at the time when there is famine in the country and damage caused by flash floods have not yet been rectified would it not have been better to spend the K300 million on pressing problems of the country?

In a desperately poor country like Malawi, handling public funds, economy should the guiding principle. If you can achieve the same objective by using either an expensive or less expensive device use the cheaper.

The argument that these vehicles are not for personal use is not weighty enough. I was staying in Paddington, London in 1962 when I heard that members of the Youth League of the Convention Peoples Party of Ghana had forced Krobo Edusei to return her golden bed to the shop in London where she had bought it, Edusei was successful businessperson in Kumasi and wife of one of Kwame Nkrumah’s most colourful ministers. She had bought the golden bed for what was then a whopping 3 000 British pounds.

When I remarked that the youth had done a good thing in forcing the lady to give up the luxury article, a roommate from Uganda retorted: “But the lady spent her own money.”

At that time, Ghana was experiencing difficulties with its cocoa exports, its foreign reserves had dwindled. In situations like these, to go to the central bank and purchase reserves for importing luxury goods is unpatriotic. My Ugandan friend did not agree with me. n

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