The West’s New African Darling

Caitlin Williscroft

Joyce Banda recently hit the 100-day mark of her Presidency in Malawi. Hailed as Africa’s second female Head of State (after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), is she the political force that can uplift Malawi from its chronic economic downturn? Her task is not easy, and her term in office brief. Malawians and donors alike admire Banda’s agenda but celebrations cannot overlook the consequences of donor-driven development.

Out with the old, in with the new

Joyce came to power in a dizzying whirlwind of events after Malawi’s former President, Bingu wa Mutharika, died from a sudden cardiac arrest. On April 5, 2012 he was declared clinically dead, leaving Malawi in a momentary political limbo. The government’s ruling party—the Democratic Political Party (DPP)—scrambled to communicate the death of their President to the masses; as a result, a haze of rumors emerged. Would the government respect the constitution? Would Joyce Banda succeed? Or would politics and power prevail?

Rumors of a power struggle centered on one key issue: Banda was expelled from the ruling party (DPP) in December 2010. And in 2011 she created her own political party (People’s Party—PP) following a brutal government crackdown on demonstrations protesting poor economic and political governance held in July 2011 that resulted in 18 deaths.  DPP hardliners held a series of secret meetings, plotting the succession of Peter Mutharika (Bingu’s brother) rather than Banda.

In the end, Malawi’s constitution was upheld and Joyce Banda was formally sworn into office under the auspices of the PP on April 7th, 2012. Malawi’s brief constitutional “crisis” was hotly debated over twitter and points to how little faith the world has in African governments peacefully handing power over to opposition parties. Ultimately, the “warm heart of Africa” cliché triumphed– who would have thought otherwise?

Banda’s accomplishments

Banda’s tenacity and aggressive political decisions are changing the face of Malawi. She brought back Malawi’s rising sun flag, fired Malawi’s chief of police, repealed Bingu’s controversial shoot-to-kill policy, and vowed to overturn laws criminalizing gay marriage in Malawi.  Banda boldly stated that she would hand over Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, to the International Criminal Court, when Malawi was scheduled to host an African Union summit in Lilongwe.  And, most famously, Banda sold Bingu’s Presidential jet (worth $12.9 million USD) as well as a fleet of 50 luxurious cars. The list goes on, and on.

Perhaps most significantly, Banda devalued the Malawian Kwacha, bowing to the pressure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and bilateral aid donors, who long accused Bingu of holding the value of the Malawian Kwacha at an artificially high rate. In May 2012, the Malawian Kwacha was devalued by 33%.  Up from 168, the Malawian Kwacha is 250 against the US dollar (USD). Naturally, the IMF embraced Banda’s decision and even sent Malawi a ‘comfort’ letter celebrating her decision.

The delicate ménage of Banda and her donors

Donors pulled out of Malawi in response to Bingu’s authoritarianism, making it clear poor economic and political governance would not be tolerated. During Bingu’s reign, the 2011-2012 budget had a gap of $121 million USD, largely due to key donors like Britain withdrawing aid. Under Banda, international donors are swooping back.  Roping in Great Britain, the United States and the IMF, Banda evidently has widespread, external support for her political agenda.

After Malawi’s currency devaluation, Britain pledged $47.3 million USD with $15.8 million going towards Malawi’s frail health system. The IMF’s letter promised a comforting $157 million USD loan for economy recovery. The African Development Bank followed suit by vowing $45 million USD in two installments.  America’s Millennium Corporation reinstated $350.7 million USD to revamp Malawi’s hydropower and energy sector. Most recently, the World Bank announced $150 million USD to assist Banda in stabilizing Malawi’s fragile economy. Enamored with Joyce, the donors and dollars keep rolling in. Malawi is the “it” country of southern Africa, making it hard to keep track of who is giving what and how much is going where.

Impressive for just over 100 days in office? Yes, but how will donor pressure influence the future of Malawi? That is harder to gauge.  Malawi exemplifies the power that external donors have in dictating internal politics in developing countries.  Donors in Malawi have a clear agenda: follow our rules or we’re gone. Now, international aid is back, but at what cost? Donor fearing Banda will do whatever it takes to please donors, after all 30-40% of Malawi’s annual budget comes directly from international aid.  Economic recovery is a priority for Banda, but in the long term, surrendering to the demands of donors diminishes Malawi’s sovereignty and reeks of neo-colonialism.

High Expectations, high results

Banda faces a tough crowd. Malawians are disgruntled by skyrocketing food prices, fuel shortages, high unemployment and a looming food crisis. With only two years until Malawi’s Presidential elections, Banda has to create palatable change to make her deserving of another term.

It’s hard not to like Banda. She has a strong women’s rights agenda, has restored donor relations, and, most importantly, is the antithesis of Bingu.

A critical mind, though, ought to be used to analyze Banda’s donor-driven agenda. In the short term, undoubtedly, Malawi needs aid to improve its economy and dilapidated education and health sector. But tying Malawi’s development intimately with donors, however, ought to be scrutinized. Banda is the West’s new darling, but the consequence of deepening Malawi’s dependency on international aid will only be understood well after Banda has left office.