Is development aid to Malawi anything more than Neo-Colonial Life-Support?

By Nick Wright August 8, 2012 · Nyasa Times

A reflection on the new state of Malawi

President Bingu wa Mutharika (with encouragement from Robert Mugabe) was beginning to develop a policy in Malawi that was designed to free Malawi from aid dependency. It was a poorly-conceived policy, and very crudely executed, like everything under Bingu’s immediate direction, but it had the potential to free Malawi from its humiliating status as international beggar.

There was something almost heroic in Bingu’s defiance of the world-order as he, the leader of one of the poorest countries in the world, sent the British ambassador packing and told the donors to “go to hell”. His sudden death in April of this year changed all that. His Vice-President, Joyce Banda, took his place according to the rules of the Malawi Constitution, and reversed that policy. The donors (IMF, DfID, EU, USAID etc) are now pouring back into the country with their bags full of aid-money: hoping to get things back to the old order when that money was injected direcly into the Malawian government as “Budget Support”. Back to the good old days of past-president Bakili Muluzi and his UDF party who knew how to get rid of that money quickly, and without fuss.

No-one has a good word to spare for Bingu these days. The foreign-exchange bureaus are functioning again and the petrol pumps have fuel to sell. Bingu’s appetite for personal self-enrichment and luxury, always suspected, is now obvious for all to see. His scowling, bullying, finger-wagging brand of leadership has been replaced by a more open, more honest and more colourful presidency with a genuine freedom of speech and of the media. The Police and the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation are no longer agents of dictatorship.

These are very important developments and the western donors are as pleased with them as are the Malawian people.

But is Malawi in danger of losing something important as the aid-money begins to flow again into Lilongwe .The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is a good example. It is back again as Malawi’s biggest donor, with £90 million. to spend every year there from its overall budget of £8,000 millions. DFID will be followed by a new British High Commissioner to occupy the vast British embassy in Lilongwe. The hundreds of Malawian NGOs and international charities with offices in Lilongwe are lining up again to spend that DFID money, as are the government ministries (Agriculture, Education, Health) which no longer have to worry their heads about awkward policy- issues and budgets. With an exchange-rate of 436 kwacha to every pound, £90 million pounds converts to so many devalued Malawian kwacha that no-one needs to worry about exhausting that pot. There’ll always be another western donor standing eagerly by, to fill any awkward holes. Hilary Clinton is due into Lilongwe at the end of this week.

In Britain, and in much of Malawi, DFID is considered to be a benevolent and politically-neutral player on the world stage: concerned only with reducing poverty. Indeed, the money DFID spends on fertilizer- and seed- subsidies in Malawi: (that part of it, at least, which gets past the corrupt Malawian middlemen who are given the government contracts for its purchase from South Africa and Saudi Arabia and for its transportation to the Malawian farmers) DOES some real good for the poor. There really IS poverty-reduction in Malawi, if only for a few months.

BUT does this aid come at a serious political price? Is DFID really politically neutral? Is Joyce Banda’s “good behaviour” as interpreted by the western donor countries irrelevant to it? Is President Banda, for example, free to re-value her hugely de-valued currency without the donors’ authorization? Is she allowed freely to interfere in the tobacco-market, as Bingu so often tried to do, against the US tobacco-buying monopolies and on behalf of Malawi’s tens of thousands of poor tobacco-farmers? Is any of this aid money allowing Malawians to be more self-sufficient? I guess not.

Joyce Banda is the darling of the West, at the moment, and will remain their darling as long as she does what they tell her to do. Paul Kagame, in Rwanda, who was, only yesterday, the blue-eyed boy (so to speak) of the US and British political establishments has now been stripped of his DFID aid-money because of his support for the “wrong” side in the DRC.

As long as the aid money keeps flowing to Malawi, will anyone care about the almost-invisible strings attached to it? The strings will always be pulled by very nice, university-educated, well-intentioned, people, in London, like Andrew Mitchell (the British minister currently in charge of International Development). These people would reject any accusation of “neo-colonialism” with genuine indignation and they have a huge British government department to prepare their self-justifications. Malawian politicians in Lilongwe will hardly feel the pressure exerted by these strings until they dare to renege on the unwritten contracts. Then there’ll be no mistake about the pressure, as Malawian subsistence-farmers are forced to confront serious famine once again and as Malawian voters threaten to change their minds about their political masters. What is a political master worth in Malawi if he doesn’t have “development” funds at his disposal?

The British Empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was administered by nice and well-educated men like the British prime minister, David Cameron, and his Conservative party-colleague, Andrew Mitchell, who believed that they were doing good for the silly “natives” in Africa. It was called “Civilization” then, and is called “International Development” now. In the cold light of history we can now see that the British Empire did as little lasting good for the colonized natives as it did for Britain itself. It actually impoverished them both.

DFID is following a very, very, familiar track.

*Nick Wright

Can You help?

From Cassie:

Hello friends

here’s a good deed for the week…

While in Malawi, we worked in Zolo Zolo Secondary School. The school was sparse with few resources so we decided to fund the renovation of room into a library.

While there, we also thought creative writing to the students. Their commitment to learning was truly inspirational and their joy at gaining a library was overwhelming.

Whilst working in the school, I found out the names of their English text book. It is a book by MacMillan Education called Looking for a Rain God. It has been out of publication for 15 years, but with the kind help of the publishers, we have located 71 copies of the text book.

Now we want to send them to Malawi so the school will not have to share a book between 10 or 12 students. The cost to buy the book from the publishers and bring it to Malawi is ten euro…so now, we’re looking for 71 people to commit to buying a book and we’ll take care of the rest.

If you would like to be the proud sponsor of a book please contact Cassie at

Who said that Malawians need AID?

Getting the best return

Mary often asks me who I’m writing for, but I never really know, who reads or who cares, but being just off the plane after 32 hours travel, maybe it’s therapeutic!!.

Six weeks in Malawi was again exciting, enlightening and generally crazy. We had the sudden death of the President, his body sent to South Africa to allow time for an attempted coup, the grand tour in the golden trailer RIP 1, the millions of dollars, allegedly, found in bags in his bedroom and in his gold plated mausoleum, the vice president sworn-in, a palpable sense of relief and hope among our village friends, and the certain possibility of a better future. We’re told,  by our Malawian friends, that Ireland, almost alone, supported him to the bitter end, something they always question.

In Malawi, this was the hungry season when most villagers are down to one meal a day, still in the cold, rainy season. The maize has grown if you have fertilizer and the wet, red soil sticks to everything.

We had hardly drawn a breath of the rarefied air, before we were reminded of our commitment to a 200 strong women’s cluster in Doroba. Four of their representatives had trudged 30 km, in the downpour, to our pump factory, in the city to say thanks for the fifty pumps, but what about our preschools? In only one year of self help success, these shy, helpless and hopeless women had become eloquent, forceful and focused. Yippee!! They knew their community needs and our requirements and had a list of five areas where preschools had already begun operations, with carers, the use of a building, a school committee and the chiefs on board. Mary decided that we should meet each community separately and make sure that they all understood that they needed WORKING committees and school gardens for a feeding programme. By the end of six weeks we now have 11 new preschools (17 in all), where all the carers have had one day’s hands-on training, with Mary and her crew, just to get them started. I have’nt mentioned the cratered tracks, the desperate journeys, the nightmares for the bony-assed!, the magical scenery and the dire poverty. All that matters now is that these communities have a common mission, to get their little ones to school and keep them there. In these remote rural areas education is prized.

Meanwhile we opened our second adult education class in another deprived area of Mzuzu. Both will be models in a new push for adult literacy. While working closely with the District Education Manager we will continue to move the process forward in the villages with preschools.

Continuing with education, our volunteers from DIT, continued work on an English language project, for secondary school begun last year, while Mary gave the keynote address, and a workshop, at an In-service day on School Management. Plans are well under way, with the Education Ministry, for a two week training programme, by experienced, Irish teachers, to enable Malawian teachers to deliver training to their peers.

Despite the fuel, forex and sugar shortages, we managed to deliver 160 pumps to our partners in Zambia which will enable them to bring clean drinking to over 70,000 remote villagers. Considering the population of Roscommon is 63,896, I figure this is a bit of an achievement!

Oh, Our beehives are going great and we bought 2 piglets for breeding on the farm.

Land ownership in Malawi is very low especially for women, but in the last ten days we managed to buy 23 acres of land, in trust, for a group of 21 women and three men to enable them to set up a model, commercial, co-operative farm

It has the backing of all nine chiefs in the area, as well as support from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro forestry, all of whom attended the hand-over meeting, at one day’s notice, under their own steam and without allowances. (maybe a first)

All this was achieved by a unique farmer, Dupu Mshanga, who will facilitate the project.

The Wells for Zoë  funding will be repaid by the end of four years and then passed on to a similar project elsewhere.

They have plans for cows and pigs, (with the help of the Ministry) paprika (for which we have a market) and pidgeon pea, Bananas and bees (we have a market for the honey), sunn hemp and velvet bean, no organic fertilizer or chemical pesticides.

These self help women will achieve all this because they are women, and because they are inspired. They will empower themselves, because they are the only ones who can do that. The final remark by Dupu was that they were never the recipients of Aid, they can do it by themselves and while they appreciate our help, he agreed that, in five years, W4Z would have convinced them that they had done it all by themselves.

John (and Mary Coyne):

New Mothers

Thursday 26 April 2012: New Mothers

Mary and the crew set off today to visit three hospitals in Mzuzu having sorted about 100 kg of baby clothes from Ireland. She also had a considerable quantities of antibiotics and painkillers contributed by pharma companies with the help of Dr Paddy Feeney, who volunteered with us in 2009.
The first port of call was the Maternity Ward in Mzuzu Central Hospital where many of the newborns have very little clothes. The biggest thank you was from a young couple had just delivered twins and the double dose of clothes and blankets was so gladly received especially by the Granny. The Mzuzu health Clinic, with whom we have a close relationship through our birthing Centre was next and finally the St John of God house of hospitality from where the request for medical supplies came. All Malawi hospitals have run short of vital medical supplies following an era of very poor governance or so I’m told. praying for better times for Malawi from the new President Joyce Banda
All in all a great day’s work, but just another day in the life of Wells for Zoe.
Most organisations get a full page newspaper spread for this, but we have many calls on our time and after all we’re just small fry in the NGO world.
The pic shows two happy mothers with new blankets and clothes.

The Genesis of Aid (A Parody)

February 28, 2012 by Ben Ramalingam

On Friday last, Good Friday, 2012 we loaded up our gear including a film crew of students from DIT, 5 bags of cement, GPS and all our various regalia, to travel to a well site using precious  fuel, over a bumpy road only to find that the well that the Chiefs had agreed to dig hadn’t even been touched in the 5 day period.

Now this is the type of failure occurring all over Africa every day. In our case we were dealing with people we didn’t know but some who were referred to us by another NGO. We didn’t do our job properly, because we talked to the Chiefs and men, even though we only do all our arrangements with the women as the prime movers. We slipped up badly. We had a plan to film the well on Friday, make the slab and on the following Friday complete the job. This was our plan, A bad plan. If the community don’t participate, there’s no plan. We know this because we have learned, that if it’s women’s business you talk to them. We know this, but we had a momentary rush of blood to the head. We will never repeat this mistake again. Of course constantly revisiting bad plans happens all the time in Malawi, so the locals are sensitised to this approach!!

If there were people around on our first visit we would have discovered an area polluted by aid. The EU paid for one school block, which is now in a poor state. Another prominent member of the Aid business built another block, by providing all the money. There was no voluntary community  involvement/participation.

There was a sponsorship plan in place for children.  We met them, with their documents showing their name, number and name of sponsor. I’m sure the sponsor got the smiling picture and the letter maybe, but I’m also sure that the heads covered in scabs, the poor clothes, the lack of school fees, or whatever else was promised would disappoint, a little, at least.

As a general rule we don’t work with people who have become beggars as a result of Aid without input.  But strangely this is what we found

I’m sure the proposals called it development aid, with high ratings for aid effectiveness. There would also be these  wonderful reports, of sustainability, strategic planning and whatever the new buzzword might be on the day.

Oh! what did we eventually do, after all the interviews and filming was done? We said goodbye to the kids and let the chiefs know why we were leaving with our cement, never to return.

On our return journey, we met a group of women, the real people of Malawi, explained what had happened, told them how to reach us when they were ready, and had their well dug. We’ll soon get a call, build the well in close proximity and have clean water for 122 poor souls and up to 500 children at the school.

We work, we say, is about Inspiration, Education and Challenge. This is what we mean by challenge.

Malawians, particularly Malawian women are capable of developing themselves if we leave them alone and support them with what they need rather than with what we think they need.

Luckily I came home to find this amazing blog by Ben Ramalingam to whom I am deeply grateful for my restored sanity and a renewed belief in how we approach things

In the beginning, the Donors said, “Let us make development in our image, and in our likeness, so that we may bring about changes in developing countries”. And other Government Departments replied, “Yes, but not too much change, and not all at once, who knows What might Happen.” And the Donors did reflect upon this, and after a time they did say, “Let there be Aid Programmes”.


And lo, having completed the appropriate paperwork and then randomly recruited staff members on the basis of spurious social connections, the Aid Workers did create a great many Aid Programmes upon the land, with rather fewer in the sea.


Now at first many Aid Programmes were formless and empty, there was darkness over any possible engagement with intended beneficiaries, and attribution of impact was absolutely nowhere to be seen. With naught else to look at, the Donors did peck at the financials like bureaucratic vultures.


And the Donors did say, “Let there be light on this programme”, but there was no light, merely quarterly reports cut and pasted from other endeavours. But the Aid Workers saw that the reports were sufficient to get the donors off their backs. They called the reports “evidence-based” and they did construct programme narratives, after a fashion. And there were visits and some more reports.


And the Aid Workers said, “Let there be a separation between us and the communities we seek to serve, to keep us even further away from messy reality, lest our donors seek to explore this area further, nobody needs that”. So the separation was made and the people ‘under’ the programmes were divided even further from those people ‘above’ them. And it was so.


The Aid Workers called the separation ‘our new decentralised structures’ and occasionally ‘our new national partnership modalities’. And there was more reporting and the first mid-term reviews.


And upon reading the reviews, the Donors said, “Let all the programmes under this sky be gathered to one place, and let duplication and waste disappear.” But it was not so. Instead the Aid Workers did gather in the bar and Grumble about it over numerous beers. The next day, the Aid Workers said those programmes whose representatives had gathered in that bar formed ‘a new Coordinated Operational Network System, or CONS’. And the Donors did scratch their heads, and then said, “Well, Okay”.


Then the Donors said, “Let the programmes produce results: monitoring systems and  impact-bearing evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, according to their various kinds.” But again, it was not so. The programmes produced reports bearing more narratives and nice photos on the front. But the content was heavily skewed according to pre-defined objectives and indicators that could have been copied off a cereal box.


And the Aid Workers saw that it was rather woolly and vague, and were satisfied. And the Donors saw that it was not Actually very good, but would at least keep the Right Wing Press off their backs for a little longer.


And the Aid Workers Head Offices said, “Let there be journalists and blogs and tweets to separate the donors – both individual and institutional – even more quickly and deeply from their cash. And let our Woolly Results serve as signs to mark our fundworthiness. And let there be pictures of children, ideally being hugged by tired-looking pretty white girls.”


And it was so. Head Office made two great lights—the greater to shine into possible funding  opportunities, and the lesser light to identify photogenic but hungry looking babies. Head Office also invited the stars and celebrities, after their Compassion-Fashion-Kicks. And Head Office saw that it was good.


And then one Aid Worker did Stand up and Say, “Let our Programmes be shaped by those we seek to serve, and Let them tell us what is good and right, and let us shine a true light into these programmes of ours, so that a light may then shine forth from them. And let that Light be Truly called ‘Development’.”


But the other Aid Workers did say, “Shut up and sit down, What are you playing at, Dost thou wish to get us all into the Deep Excrement?”


Thankfully the Donors were too busy creating new Declarations of Aid Effectiveness, within which all new and existing efforts should be fixed, according to their kind, and so did not notice.


And so this Aid Worker did leave that place, and became a Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist.


The other Aid Workers blessed her departure and said “Come back when our next mid-term review is due, and verily your rates will be good.” And they were.


And then finally the Donors, after yet more ambiguous reviews, did say, “Let your programmes prove their sustainability, such that we shall see how they continue after we reduce core funding.” And this Exit Strategy they all did  promise to abide.


And so, after more grumbling, questionable reports, and beers, the Aid Workers did leave that place to work in areas which were more aligned with the Donors current priority interests. And so it happened that National Partners were left to wind the programmes down within one year, albeit at a fraction of the original cost and with Minimum Overheads.


And then, two more years after that, New Donors and their staff members did arrive, and they did say, “Let there be an Aid Programme Just Here.”


And, lo, it was so.

Village Meeting

Village Meeting
Originally uploaded by wellsforzoe

It may look like a visit to a village in the touristic sense. Go there, meet the village and leave, never to be seen again.
But we just don’t go about our business like this.
Here we see part of a Self Help Group before their weekly meeting started. They began their savings scheme in January 2011, saving small amounts. They began lending to each other in March 2011 charging an interest rate of 20%, which goes back in to the kitty. They are involved in small business and at the end of November had a loan book of 1246 Euro. Now these are some of the poorest women in the area, some are widows and few can read and write. Brian, with the purple shirt, an employee of our friends at St John of God Services, is their mentor, educator and advisor, but they do everything else themselves. All this has been achieved by these 18 women with no financial input from outside. They have achieved all by themselves, a lesson to the rest of the World!!. After working successfully in these small groups, the progress to Community needs, forming a cluster representing 10 small groups
At this stage they presented us with proposals for clean water, preschools and adult education. We are now working with the first cluster on the building of 10 preschools which will double for Adult Education. Training has began is some and we are ahead of schedule.
When I say we, I mean that we support the community, but they do all the work and. In the preschools we supply some cement, and the metal for the roof, they do all the work. We also supply training and for caregivers in the preschools and work with the Ministry of Education for training adult education trainers.
This group have 34 wells/pumps and when we came along only one worked.
Later we will bring training in conservation farming and horticulture.
These now successful business women are ready to drive this agenda, having been empowered by their own success. They are not for turning and they will go upwards and onwards.
An amazing success story against all the odds.