Why poverty is worsening in Malawi

As billions of kwacha meant to develop the country and improve livelihoods of poor Malawians leave government bank accounts only to land in civil servants’ and their accomplices’ accounts, car boots, bedrooms and sometimes cleaned up by the villains through acquisition and construction of mansions and properties in low density suburbs and prime areas, the majority of taxpayers are sliding deeper into the dungeons of poverty.

Most of these poor folks starve year in, year out and not all the money that should have been used for coming up with developmental interventions that could be the panacea to the vicious circle of perennial hunger and poverty reaches the grass roots.

The story of starvation is even more heartbreaking given our acceptance that we are an agriculture-based economy with agriculture accounting for more than 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and around 85 percent of export earnings. Most importantly, more than 80 percent of Malawi’s population—which live in rural areas—counts subsistence farming as its most important source of livelihood.

As a country, we also know that most of these livelihoods are highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture, which is sensitive to climate change and extreme weather conditions.

The reason we are still relying on rain-fed agriculture to water our crops despite boasting one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world and having tens of rivers that ran across the length and breadth of the country is not that we do not have the resources. We have enough money.

But the folks we entrust with public funds that could have been invested in irrigation and other efficient agricultural technologies to help boost farm output have stolen a good chunk of the money.

This is why a large part of the population is left vulnerable to food insecurity with little or no coping mechanisms to weather the hunger storms. As we speak, government is running around trying to raise $80 million (about K27 billion) to buy maize and feed the hungry. Government should just round up some civil servants and it will find the money.

Floods and prolonged dry spells come every year and the negative effects on crop production and the livelihoods of rural people are well known to political leaders, policy and law makers. There are even some sort of interventions to deal with this. But why is it that there is no sign of improvement?

I know that as I write this, government programmes and projects as well as similar initiatives by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are underway in most hunger prone districts countrywide.

These initiatives have been there for decades and have all aimed at helping folks to strengthen their resilience to food security shocks.

Most of the interventions, at least on paper, aim at improving income and food access, enhance access to basic services, put in place safety nets and indeed help the poor recover their livelihoods through asset rebuilding endeavours.

But why have these interventions failed to achieve their objectives? For example, in Nsanje, Chikhwawa and Balaka—the perpetually hunger-prone districts that over the last few years have, according to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, contributed roughly 15 percent of the total population that is at risk of missing their food entitlements in Malawi—poverty levels have worsened despite a concentration of multi-faceted interventions there.

In fact, various studies have shown that in these three districts, there has been a staggering erosion of the people’s livelihood base, leading to worsening poverty levels as the number of asset poor households climbs sharply.

Why is the situation deteriorating in the face of billions that are supposedly being poured there?

The first reason is that some civil servants, some politicians and some of their associates have stolen most of the money that is supposed to support these interventions, leaving little to trickle down to the poor—usually too late to have an impact.

The second reason is that the design of these programmes is usually donor-driven, with interventions imported from countries that have very little in common with Malawi, let alone the districts being targeted.

Third—and probably most problematic—is the fact that most of the data used to design these interventions is suspect, especially baseline information, which makes targeting hard.

Fourth is the weak implementation, especially when it comes to fiduciary management, technical backstopping as well as monitoring and evaluation.

What is the solution? We need to work on the problems highlighted above. In addition, politicians should stop concentrating on the politically rewarding humanitarian assistance and instead marry humanitarian assistance with long-term resilience building programmes that empower the people to cope with shocks on their own.

And, yes, government must scale up well-designed, targeted and efficiently implemented poverty reduction interventions instead of the handouts that manage to get votes for politicians, but only leave the poor poorer.

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