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Malawi austerity dulls Banda's lustre

07 May 2013, 10:07

Blantyre - Malawi President Joyce Banda is hailed by the international community as a courageous reformer, but those same economic reforms are making her increasingly unpopular at home.

Thirty-year-old Wizi Lemani, who makes sandals on the side of the street from worn-out tyres, blames slow business on Banda's austerity drive and an IMF-inspired decision to devalue Malawi's currency.

"Sales have been slow over the past year. Everybody says the president is to blame, she devalued the kwacha which has brought misery to poor people" he told AFP.

Lemani said his income has plummeted to the equivalent of $100 a month, barely enough to pay for food, rent and transport for his wife and two children.

Across the country it is a similar picture.

The value of the local currency dropped by more than 50% in a year, while half of the country's 13 million population live on less than one dollar a day.

Half of rural households have run out of home-grown maize stocks four to six months before the next harvest.

Against this grim backdrop, Malawians - like many Europeans subjected to austerity measures - are increasingly calling the policy, and the policymaker, into question.

"She is becoming unpopular after a lot of hope was placed on her," said Lemani.

When Banda became Malawi's first female president a year ago, expectations were high that she would ease long-standing chronic poverty and an economy that the president herself described as "a mess".

Economic reforms

Under her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, foreign donors who made up 40% of the country's budget fled and serious fuel shortages blighted the economy.

Mutharika had refused to devalue the currency during his eight years in office, arguing it would lead to hyper-inflation and would not spur exports.

With inflation now standing at around 37%, that argument seems somewhat prescient.

Still, when Banda promised change she was feted by Hillary Clinton, who visited the country in August and by the International Monetary Fund, which after years of absence, granted the country a massive loan.

Banda herself often tells Malawians at rallies that they should be patient as her economic reforms would "pay off soon after going through this suffering".

"It's like a boil, it hurts at first but later it gets healed."

Billy Mayaya, one of the country's leading human rights activists blames Banda for "accepting every prescription" from the IMF and says it is conspicuous government spending that rankles.

"Her government is still living beyond the means and with frequent local and international travels, Malawians see this as a contradiction... that's why she is unpopular," Mayaya said.

But some Malawians are more sympathetic.

Humphrey Mvula, a well-known political pundit, says Banda should not be assessed "without looking where Malawi is coming from".

Economic recovery plan

"The Mutharika administration had hit a storm on various parameters such as governance and bad laws. It played itself out of the rules of the economic game," Mvula told AFP.

He said Banda had no choice but to embrace devaluation and launching the economic recovery plan, a lynchpin of her government.

"It will take a bit of time for the plan to bear fruits. Malawians will have to suffer a little before things change for the better," said Mvula.

He added: "Unless we improve our systems such as revolutionise our agriculture rather than depending on archaic ways of using hoes, for a quick return, Malawi will continue to be a beggar because we have a poor economy."

Chitsa Phiri, a vendor hawking Chinese-made products along the streets of Blantyre agrees, saying Banda's administration is "paying for the economic sins of Mutharika."

"How hard she may try, she will remain unpopular because Mutharika was seen to be tough and stubborn against donors and Malawians seemed to like him for this stance," Phiri, a university drop-out, said.

Voters will let their views be known next year in the country's fifth multi-party elections.

Her main challenger will be Peter Mutharika, a brother to the late president who had been anointed as his successor.

The race is thus being tipped as a referendum on Banda's austerity drive.



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