Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Monday, 18 July 2011

The UK, Malawi and understanding aid

Andrew Mitchell (c) acumenimages

The bilateral relationship between the UK and Malawi took a further blow last week, when the Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, announced that the UK were withholding £19m worth of aid from the government of Malawi. A Department for International Development (DfID) press release stated the following concerns:
On governance, demonstrations have been suppressed, civil society organisations intimidated, and an Injunctions Bill passed that would make it easier for the Government to place restrictions on opponents without legal challenge. 
On the economy, the UK is concerned that Malawi’s overvalued exchange rate has created chronic foreign exchange shortages which are having a serious impact on the Malawian private sector’s ability to drive future growth. There are now daily fuel queues, tobacco exports have deteriorated and Malawi is off-track with its IMF programme.”
Relations have been worsening over the last couple of years. The Guardian reports that in 2009, the UK withdrew £3m worth of aid after the government of Malawi purchased a presidential jet worth more than £8m. Earlier this year, the British High Commissioner to Malawi was expelled following the leak of a diplomatic cable to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The note criticised Malawi's president Bingu wa Mutharika as "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism". At the time, the FCO suggested that there would be consequences for declaring their man “persona non grata”.

On the surface, the reasons given for the withdrawal of aid appear hypocritical. Whilst the government claims that it is in the interests of the UK taxpayer, we can not exactly hold ourselves up as shining beacons of governance and economic management. On governance, UK state institutions suppress demonstrations (e.g. “kettling” of children during student protests) and intimidate civil society organisations such as trade unions (e.g. sorry, News International/Wapping dispute). On the economy…need I write anything.

Although the UK will continue to provide aid to Malawi through other donors, budget support is used to help governments deliver their own national strategies for reducing poverty. The context and background to the announcement on the removal of budget support raises questions about what aid means and in whose interest aid is provided.

From a dominant western perspective, aid appears to be linked to ideas of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into force in 1948. Drafted by government representatives from the more powerful Western nations, there were only 51 recognised nation states that signed this document. Africa and swathes of Asia were not yet independent and remained under colonial rule. Western notions of human rights prioritise ideas of civil and political rights above economic, social and cultural rights. In terms of aid, this assumes that westernised ideals of “good governance” will bring about economic and social development, and so, reductions in poverty and improvements in education and health. This has a knock-on effect of empowering the purpose of the work of aid agencies; they become adjuncts of the state with their own agendas and quests for funding.

(c) Khym54
Following an audit of DfID Malawi in 2009, the National Audit Office (NAO) commissioned a review to establish greater evidence of impact, value for money and efficiency savings. DfID’s review on the impact of the heath Sector-Wide Approach (SWAp) in Malawi is the sort of project that they were supporting until funding was cut last week. This 2010 report was limited to being a desk-bound study, which seems to have frustrated its author; further studies were taking place that could have provided greater in-depth evidence as to its impact, which would have saved the government, and UK taxpayer, money.

Some of the key messages to come from this report are:
Assessing impact and attribution pose particular problems. It is not possible to attribute results achieved to DFID support or the SWAp.” 
Good progress has certainly been made during the SWAp period, although Malawi is unlikely to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) health targets.” 
Improvements in terms of outputs – whether in terms of service coverage or the implementation of reforms - have been made. However, the picture is mixed and huge challenges still remain.” 
Some progress has been made in terms of key reforms – stronger in some areas than others e.g. decentralisation - whilst progress has been much weaker in terms of pharmaceutical supply.” 
The government is spending far more than was initially expected on health in absolute terms - though it has fallen a little behind in its commitment to the Abuja Declaration (to allocate 15% of the national budget to health) - and recent years have seen some drop-off.” 
There is a further question as to whether a SWAp should actually have to show impact.”
From an UK government view, these findings appear to indicate that traditional ideas of aid are working to some extent. But is it possible to quantify what price one should place on these improvements?

Whilst there may governance problems in Malawi, we are going to fund projects in countries that are conflict-ridden and "fragile", including Bangladesh, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. If we aid only these states, then we are not offering aid in the traditional altruistic sense. Instead, we are funding our own security.

The Africa Research Institute produces a series of “counterpoints” that reflect locally-constructed ideas of Africa. In Voices of Disquiet on the Malawian Airwaves, the author highlights the importance of the state-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation’s (MBC) radio programme, Nkhani Zam’maboma, to its people.

Attracting several million listeners, this programme exposes everyday economic injustices experienced by Malawians. Using local idioms to bring grievances to life, they are also used as a means of expressing their displeasure at authority. The author notes foreign donors and human rights activists take little note of Nkhani Zam’maboma, ostensibly because it is broadcast in the national language, Chichewa, which few foreigners speak. He also notes that human rights campaigners have often condemned MBC as being a propagandist tool of the government. The author considers this an unreasonable assumption, as it supposes that all the journalists working there are fuelled by the patronage of the government. Furthermore, he suggests that Malawians listen to state-sponsored stories critically, and that human rights groups do not take this into account.

Culturally, there is no direct translation of human rights. In Chichewan it corresponds to “birth freedom”. After studying 500 stories that had been broadcast, the author queried why there was a lack of human rights issues on the programme. The editors retorted that “they are NGOs’ things”.

This highlights the cultural differences that exist in human rights, and aid, discourse. It also exposes the iniquitous power divide that separates the rich nations from the poor. Globally, the west continues to define, and re-imagine, what aid is. For governments, donors and activists remain crucial to the delivery of human rights and aid. They bring it to those in need. Yet, it is a western version of human rights and aid that is imposed on them, and not something that reflects local injustices. Despite the centrality of equality in human rights discourse, the relationship between donor and recipient is not equal.

One might argue that UK aid to Malawi has been working in its traditional, charitable connotation. However, the UK has redefined aid to suit its own agenda. That said, the delivery of aid in its current format may well not be economically sound, but, not for the reasons given by DfID. If we are to take human rights issues, and aid, seriously, then we need to unravel earlier assumptions of human rights, and re-imagine a global system that fully addresses the cultural understandings of the less powerful. 
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