I have been on placement in Malawi for a month now, as a team leader for the NGO International Service. Our team has been paired with a local NGO called CYECE, who are primarily concerned with Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR), our team consists of UK and Malawian volunteers. The communities we are working in are within the district of Dedza. We are working alongside schools and community groups in the rural communities: Golomoti, Mdakataka and Bembeke. This is my second placement with International Service.
Back home in Yorkshire, I am currently studying an MA in Peace and Development, and a degree in Global Development and Politics, both from Leeds Beckett University. Asides from my studies and placements with International Service; I’ve supported people from backgrounds which have involved oppression, poverty, and violence.
Firstly, I would like to encourage anybody who is concerned with the study of development to take opportunities to work or simply travel in underdeveloped or less developed countries. To see both poverty, corruption, success, and failure with their own eyes; to have emotional responses and build relationships with people is invaluable. Not for the sake of finding a future job necessarily, but to contextualise all that theory you have learnt through study, to accompany your theory with practical and emotional experiences. The job will follow.
From my own experiences, particularly this one, I’ve had successive realisations of just how much I have learnt and how contributable it is. Particularly regarding the interconnective nature of development indicators. I often find myself wondering big-picture questions such as; how carbon emissions in the UK effect HIV outbreaks, or how Brexit will impact women’s rights in the commonwealth member states, or the effect climate change has on rural communities in a post-colonial world.
On the other hand, I am very humble of my lack of practical experience. For example, the national development workers in Malawi can often put into simple terms what I often express through the complex, inaccessible, academic jargon I have come imitate. For instance, whilst I may say, “Is gender mainstreaming a rebranding and appropriation of a pre-existing feminist movement for women’s rights?” the response would be “So you mean it’s just new words for the same struggle?” I can only humbly agree; that this is a more useful way of putting it and not just because it side-steps the language barrier.
Regardless of whether the restraints of this placement will give me enough opportunity to put into practice all that I have learnt, the point is that I have come to understand the importance of theory which in the past has frustrated me and sometimes felt like a burden. The experience has been on whole a reaffirmation of my own abilities and the strength of my contributions. Although pre-occupied with the project at hand; part of me awaits bigger opportunities offering more capacity to utilise all that I have learnt; and I am waiting patiently for my practical experiences to catch up to my theory.
As my theory develops regarding the complexity of poverty and corruption in the world today; I grow more reluctant to use words such as ‘epidemic’ or ‘crises’ to describe it. I also grow reluctant to use words such as fighting, combatting, or countering poverty; to describe our concerted actions towards these aspects of social justice.
Studying the complexity of poverty and how it is continuously replicating; it seems at best an unperceived and thus an unmitigated consequence of inadequate political economic management, created by those who sought the abstraction profit whilst myopic to the grave consequences it entailed. Whilst in my most sceptical hours, poverty appears; as an orchestrated phenomenon, created systematically with no regard for the suffering it entailed. Regardless of what it is, some people continue to benefit from the impoverishment of others.
I am tight-roping somewhere between these two perspectives of poverty, whilst I am meeting many affluent Malawians who are welcoming big development, globalisation, private sector development and the free market. For many members of the new generation of Malawians; it seems the problem of development is it just isn’t big enough. Yet the opening of more fast-food stores in the capital city is their indicator of national development; and they want their happy meals supersized.
Meanwhile in the old town of Dedza there remains an abandoned 1960s shop, with an old-fashioned hand painted Coca Cola advert, the shop is now a home for many orphaned children, survivors of the aids epidemic; a portent of what (or what not) multinational corporations have done for the livelihoods and human security in rural communities.
A more appropriate term than “the epidemic of poverty” often used here in Malawi would be “the epidemic of corruption.” As this poverty is not caused by poor people, rather it is perpetuated by myopic, oppressive, and corrupt government officials; and the other orchestrators of this have and have-not society. The most devastating symptoms in the epidemic of corruption; is the destruction of social amenities such as education and health care, and the endangering of cultural diversity; but above all the lives and happiness of people continuously oppressed. If the scenario must be considered an epidemic then the disease is corruption not poverty.
Most harrowingly, this language used by global leaders who talk about ending poverty echoes Orwellian newspeak. How similar is “Freedom is slavery” to “Poverty is disease”?
In the age of globalisation, we live in an increasingly interconnected web of technology, politics, surveillance, and economics; corruption alike is increasingly interwoven and runs along transnational networks. For those of us concerned with ending corruption, we the activists cannot rely on political or economic rhetoric which uses the state as a unit of analyses. It is illogical to observe corruption by individual state, since corruption exists beyond state territory and often involves transnational actors.
Malawian officials are famous for corruption; it seems I can barely finish the word politician without somebody rhetorising “corrupt!” “launderer!” or “Thief!” However, the truth is the alleged corrupt actions of Malawian leaders are orchestrated in partnership with transnational actors. Often involving tax-free incentives being awarded to foreign firms, who often pack up and leave the country quickly when the free-tax incentive ends. Not to mention the epidemic of aid related fraud and what must be a long list of foreign bank accounts owned by Malawian officials. The corruption does not belong solely to Malawi, it is a transnational epidemic.
Meanwhile, the popular politics recorded on the front of the national newspaper reports on a growing divide in public opinion on whether building football stadiums or hospitals should be the prime objective of the next government.
Likewise, the victims of transnational corruption are better not defined by nationality but as a sway of the global population which extends across state boundaries. I’ve met many young people in Malawi who voice this view that poor people from Mozambique are coming across the border to use their health services and strain Malawi’s already cramped hospitals. However, whether from Mozambique or communities on Malawi’s borderlands; the people speak the same language, are ethnically the same, drink the same brands of beer, eat the same staple foods, and are equally victims of from the same oppression.
Although political, economic, and ecological reasoning can be used in combination against corruption, the strongest opposition to corruption by far is ethical and moral reasoning, and it is the grounding for the most sustainable arguments in resistance to transnational corruption. People can deny global warming, economic and political science, they may even deny their shared heritage with communities in Mozambique; however, they cannot deny that corruption is ethically wrong and that we all have a moral responsibility to stop it.
The overall aim of development in Malawi and other countries should be simple; to provide secure health and social services whilst protecting its people in their cultural and biological diversity. Furthermore, it should be in no way involved in agendas that cause the destruction of cultural diversity, and harm rural communities who live closest to nature. However, since the birth of Malawi as a nation, millions of people have paid the grave cost for actions done under the branding of development.
Clearly it is wrong to trial all development projects in Malawi and elsewhere in Africa as an accomplice to corruption (or in some cases the corrupter itself). However, it appears justified to say that the mainstream development agenda has often pursued economic growth which in turn neglected the wellbeing of many people and specific communities. And this has often been disguised under the branding of participatory and empowering development agendas.
The adverse effects of globalisation and corrupt agendas in Malawi include a sickening list of human right’s violation from child-slavery, prostitution, and the destruction of cultural diversity and millions of people dying because of not being able to access adequate healthcare. This failure of human security in Malawi has created fear amongst people, which we can only hope will not fuel nationalist movements or violent fascism. Perhaps the populist blaming of Mozambique for struggling health services, rather than challenging the corrupt officials, irresponsible transnational corporations and the theft of aid money is a sign of rising nationalism; I hope not.
By no means has our world been in this situation of globalisation before. However, it is important that our ethical reasoning for challenging corruption is informed by examples from our historical experiences and not based on predictions of what the future could be like, at which we can only speculate.
Malawi is a country in need of sustainable state building, and a development agenda which can patch up the holes which have been left by a non-evolutionary state. To facilitate sustainable state building, the diversity of cultural and regional identities which exist in Malawi must be facilitated into decision making, rather than being marginalised from the power which largely rests in urban cores.
Failure to do so will result in the ever-increasing contrasting landscape of high tech industries and modern infrastructure and human security; juxtaposed on a rural landscape of communities vulnerable to malnutrition, hunger and starvation. As well as more exploitation and marginalisation when these rural communities are directly or indirectly evicted from their land and the village nexus and natural environment is threatened further.
This gives rise to the essentiality of cultural-specific and community led development with core values of community participation, diversity, and environmental protection. This means a turning away from the funding sources which are highly bureaucratic; whom must not be able to see the grassroots over their oversized bellies.
The process of big development and globalisation in Africa has marginalised and endangered diverse cultures, assimilating them all under umbrella terms such as “The Bottom Billion” or “The Poor.” However, the experiences of Malawi are much different to other former colonies, who are rich in natural resources and have suffered from prolonged periods of civil war. In Malawi the people have clearly resisted colonialisation in the past and survived; with a beautiful array of their diverse cultural identities intact. Their coping mechanisms for corruption are unique to what was necessary to survive in Malawi and we should be careful not to patch together their experiences with the experiences of other communities in other African countries, however necessary it seems for analysis and understanding.
Poverty as we know it today is a modern phenomenon and different to historic poverty and one at least perpetuated if not created by corruption. Today poverty is caused by community, national and global corruption; ill-logical development increasingly empowers only a fragment of Malawi’s population. Poverty here has therefore been beneficial for the few who wish to assimilate their economies into the world market.
In such a paradox, the state stop acting for the benefit of all people and become increasingly repressive to a large sway of the population who are an obstacle to their agenda. This comes at the extent of cultural diversity, human security, and ecology. Therefore, it is increasing important that poor people are recognised not as an obstacle, but as the best planners and implementers of their own agenda; having survived in the heart of corruption so well for so long; they are the best equipped for creating a better alternative and reversing the present situation in Malawi.
No longer should we try end, fight or combat poverty in Malawi; today we should welcome a new era of self-empowered solutions originating from the people themselves to end corruption. Such a movement requires above all a new hope.
Hope is in the knowledge that the oppressed are not entirely torn from their cultural and social fabric; that tradition has not entirely been pushed aside by Ronald Macdonald, hope is for an emergence of a new social order in the name of the poor. A hope which is held by some politicians, journalists, academics, NGOs, social activists and bureaucrats; a full network of bright and rising minds. The epidemic of corruption is above all an opportunity for transformation; only the oppressed themselves can be at the heart of making this change one for the better.