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Malawi: Don't jump on the 'quick links' bandwagon, all is not as it seems

BBC News has recently drawn our attention to the use of British aid money in Malawi and what is being described as "phantom aid", where "large amounts of money are wasted" on paying administration costs and fees to international consultants. A few days later, BBC News and others widely reported the UN’s flash appeal for US $ 88 million for emergency aid for an estimated 4.2 million Malawians (one third of the population) who are facing hunger this year.

But let’s not jump too readily onto the bandwagon of "quick links", the simplistic lines of causality that have dominated too much of the big and important aid debate during 2005, and which seem to be becoming the counterparts of the "quick wins" that the international community will be asked to endorse at next week’s Millennium Summit.

Malawians are vulnerable this year and every year because of long-term trends over the last 15 years or more: 63 % live below the locally defined poverty line, and nearly 50 % of under-fives suffer from long-term malnutrition. Growing maize is no longer economic for many small farmers, the market infrastructure on which they depended has collapsed, there are precious few jobs and other income sources in either rural or urban areas, and health services have deteriorated at precisely the time HIV/AIDS is ravaging society. It is supporting consistent government policies to correct these long-term trends which should be a priority: drought – or more accurately increasing climatic variability (think of the floods of 2000) – can be a convenient scapegoat, but must not be allowed to overshadow the need to tackle these long-term trends.

Breaking these trends requires difficult changes over a sustained period by both government and donors, for example:

• Loosening the stranglehold of patron-client relations on the political system: politics are supposed to influence how resources are allocated, but not on the basis of individual gain. It is bad news indeed that around 100,000 tonnes of Malawi’s Strategic Grain Reserve could be sold off in dubious circumstances in 2001 just prior to the last food crisis, that a further 25,000 tonnes could be released without management approval in advance of the national elections in 2004, and that typically less than 15% of the government budget is spent on agreed "priority poverty expenditures".

• Supporting the Malawi government in taking a longer-term view on poverty, economic growth and food security. Given that some 80% of the government’s development budget (and 40% of the recurrent budget) comes not from citizens’ tax revenue but from aid, the international development community must stick to programmes that last longer than a year at a time. This has not always been the case: even as Malawi’s first three-year government Poverty Reduction Strategy was being finalised in 2001, donors withdrew budget support. Even leaving aside short-term emergency relief, which forms nearly 60% of the current UN flash appeal, development assistance such as free agricultural inputs distribution, which started in 1999 and forms 40% of the flash appeal, must be programmed for more than a year at a time. These inputs programmes have made a positive difference to Malawi, despite dubious donor requirements that they be targeted to the very poorest, but have usually been delivered late and with missing components.

The Tikambirani Project that caught the BBC’s attention last week was intended to contribute to strengthening civil society in Malawi. Many government-supported initiatives, including the multi-stakeholder Food Crisis Joint Task Force on food security and the National Action Group on economic policy, are also intended to open up political debate and accountability on key national development issues.

Better to build the capacity of local professionals to contribute to positive change in Malawi, by all means enriched with international consultants’ insights, who may be strong on knowledge of other countries but light on local history. This involves taking the time to train local people in the business requirements of the donors, and accepting a more relaxed timetable as people rely more on local buses than on imported 4 x 4s. One significant issue is supporting local consultants to operate independently in a political system dominated by patron-client relations. Capacity won’t increase overnight or probably even within the life of a single three-year project. Malawi has been nominally a multi-party democracy for just 11 years. Just how badly does the pace of change in political institutions and practices compare with the UK’s and US’s experience of multi-party politics?

One laudable component of the political system out of which DFID operates, is the UK’s system of parliamentary watchdogs which investigate without fear or favour and throw open for public debate the use of UK government funds for projects like Tikambirani.

Oh, and for journalists who feel uncomfortable about staying in international hotels patronised by consultants and politicians, I can recommend several guesthouses where the modest bill is paying for local staff and locally-sourced produce.