Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Africa Steps Up the Fight Against Maternal and Child Deaths

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

The very survival of women and children in Africa may depend on the newly-launched Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA). According to latest estimates by the African Union (AU), over the next ten years there will be 2.5 million maternal deaths, another 2.5 million child deaths and 49 million maternal disabilities in Africa alone if urgent actions are not taken.

Around the world, a woman dies every minute from pregnancy-related causes. Globally, there are more than 500,000 maternal deaths per year, the majority of which are in Africa where in many places the maternal mortality rate (MMR) is as high as 1,000 deaths per 100,000 live births. And these death threats are only increasing: one in every 16 African women faces the lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy and delivery-related complications, particularly those from marginalized communities and those living in poverty.

On May 7th, I attended the AU's launch of CARMMA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Its theme, Africa cares: no woman should die while giving life, reflects a campaign designed to accelerate the availability and use of universally accessible quality health services, including those related to reproductive and sexual health.
The AU Commissioner for Social Affairs, Bience Gawanas, describes the maternal mortality rate in Africa as “unacceptably high.” She says CARMMA aims to enhance political leadership and commitment at national levels to reducing maternal and child deaths. By identifying and working with national champions, the campaign will leverage local resources to mobilize action.

Gawanas says the campaign will help raise and maintain awareness and appropriate response at global, continental, regional and national levels to ensure that the best practices of countries which have significantly reduced maternal mortality rates are replicated elsewhere through exchanges and visits by health professionals.

“It is my hope, through this campaign, that we will ensure that our renewed efforts save the lives of women who should not die while giving life,” she says. “We should ensure accountability; every single loss of a mother’s life should be reported. In this regard, it is essential to establish and institutionalize maternal, infant and child mortality audits.”

Gawanas says that if every maternal and child is reported, experts will be able follow up on the specific causes and work on prevention.

For Agnes Mapapa, 67, from southern Malawi, the campaign is welcome news – her first-born daughter died while giving birth in 2007 because the nearest health center is some 35 kilometers away. “She bled to death soon after giving birth. There was no skilled attendant to help her and we could not get to the health center as it is too far away from our village,” says Mapapa. Her newborn granddaughter died just seven days later.

“I also lost a niece in child-birth last year,” she continues. “I have three other daughters of child-bearing age who are already married and I fear that they might face death or disability if they [get] pregnant. We need help and this new campaign might bring salvation to my community.” Mapapa hopes that with the campaign, a clinic will be built within her area so that pregnant women can easily access maternity services.

Malawi’s MRR is 807 deaths per 100,000 live births, making it one of Africa’s highest. It is second only to war-torn Sierra Leone. The good news is that Malawi is among the first batch of countries that will conduct government-led national launches and get technical support from the AU and UN agencies in the next three months. Other countries leading in the launch effort include Mozambique, Rwanda and South Africa.

Malawi already has initiatives promoted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the country’s Ministry of Health where traditional leaders and their communities are empowered to create their own community-based campaigns to improve maternal and child health. UNFPA reproductive health officer, Juliana Lunguzi says CARMMA will strengthen these programs.

“Traditional chiefs, who command a lot of respect in Malawi’s villages, are used as champions for promoting the maternal and child health initiatives. The chiefs facilitate the formation of local village committees on safe motherhood and family planning. The committees encourage pregnant women to seek antenatal care, monitor the health and growth of new-born babies and are also in charge hygiene and sanitation in the villages,” says Lunguzi.

Reports from UNFPA Malawi indicate that these initiatives are working. As just one example, Pitala Village in the country’s central district of Mchinji has seen no maternal deaths in the past two years. Before the initiative, it was not strange to hear that a pregnant woman or a newborn child had died.

Speaking on behalf of African government at CARMMA’s launch, Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi says it is regrettable that women and children continued to die from preventable causes. He emphasizes the need for a universal and adequate health service system for all African countries saying it will not be possible for the continent to achieve the Millennium Development Goals without addressing the issue of maternal and child mortality.

“We should come up with solutions that work in the resource constrained environment we live in,” he says. “Most of the health problems in Africa can be tied to preventable diseases so emphasis should be given to preventive measures, which are relatively cheap.”

Meanwhile the United Nations (UN) - through the UNFPA, World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) - has thrown its weight behind CARMMA, vowing to support it fully.

UNFPA Africa Regional Director Bunmi Makinwa told journalists at the launch that the UN is convinced that the battle against maternal mortality could be won if there is effective coordination among all players.

He says the high incidence of maternal death in Africa must change. “Is this something that should continue happening? No,” he says. “It’s really sad that one of the worst things that could happen to a woman in Africa is being pregnant.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

MALAWI: Poverty Uppermost in Voters' Minds

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

When Malawians go to vote on May 19, they are expected to put their cross next to the party they believe will do most to reduce poverty. Political campaigns in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections have centred around poverty, agriculture, food security and employment.

Margret Kalibu lives on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe. Her husband died last year, leaving her with seven children the ages of two and 15. With one less income, the family survives on only one meal a day, mainly porridge.

Kalibu says her husband died of malaria because he could not access treatment – they did not have the money for him to travel to the nearest public hospital, located 25 kilometres from his home.

As Kalibu goes to vote this week, she says she will choose a president and a member of parliament who will make sure to improve the economic and social well-being of her family.

"I want a president and an MP who has the poor people’s interest at heart. I want my family to have access to food, clothing, good health facilities and proper housing. I want my children to have access to proper education," said Kalibu.

Most Malawians going to the polls will cast their votes based on similar considerations, reckons the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organisations, community-based organisations, media, trade unions and academia.

Basic needs, such as food and employment, are key issues in Malawi. Up to 65 percent of the country’s 13.1 million people are living below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira says many Malawians will vote for political parties that campaign for poverty reduction, improved health care, increased infrastructure and better education standards.

Agriculture is another important issue that will determine people’s choice in the elections, Kumbatira says. Eighty-five percent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and the agricultural industry generates up to 70 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

"During their campaigns, the front-runners in the presidential election have been talking about the importance of boosting agricultural productivity. Most people will take the issue of food security seriously when they enter the polling booth to vote," said Kumbatira.

Various opinion polls have indicated as front-runners current president Bingu wa Mutharika, in direct competition with John Tembo, leader of the country’s oldest political grouping, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), who has formed a coalition with the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the country’s former president, Bakili Muluzi.

The presidential election is being contested by five other candidates: Loveness Gondwe of the National Rainbow Coalition, who is the country’s first female presidential candidate, Alliance for Democracy’s Dindi Gowa Nyasulu, Stanley Masauli of the Republican Party, independent presidential candidate James Nyondo and Kamuzu Chibambo of People's Transformation Party.

The leading political parties are well aware of the need to fight poverty and hunger and improve basic services, such as health and education. During election campaigns in the past few weeks, the MCP, for example, has promised to introduce a universal agricultural subsidy programme, while the DPP has pledged to strengthen an existing subsidy for resource-poor smallholder farmers.

In its manifesto, the MCP says it will support the people of Malawi to feed themselves, clothe themselves, live healthily, lead productive lives and live in decent houses by scrapping taxes on domestic housing materials.

The MCP also promises to overhaul the health system, which is currently seen as a failure, and re-establish professionalism, efficiency and integrity in the civil service. "I want the lives of the people, particularly the poor ones in the villages, to improve," MCP’s Tembo says.

The DPP, on the other hand, claims it has successfully implemented developmental polices in the five years it has been in power and suggests people should vote for the ruling party if they want continued development.

The DPP has also pledged to invest heavily in education by providing more funding to schools and colleges and to be more committed to raising educational standards.

However, political experts are afraid election manifestos may remain lip service. Most campaign promises made by the different parties have been vague, and politicians have refrained from detailing what policies and programmes they will implement to improve service delivery.

"People will be voting while groping in the dark. No party has managed to articulate properly how they will execute their promises and this might encourage people to vote on ethnic lines," said Blessings Chinsinga, political analyst at the University of Malawi.

While agreeing that most Malawians will vote for candidates who promise to tackle poverty, hunger and unemployment, Chinsinga said ethnicity is likely play a role in the elections.

"In the past, we have seen Malawians vote on regional as well as ethnic grounds. They either voted for a president who comes from their area or for a president who they think sympathises with their tribe," he explained.

Christopher Gondwe, a registered voter from Mzuzu in northern Malawi, confirmed Chinsinga’s theory when telling IPS he will vote for a president who is interested in developing the whole country without segregation.

"The north, for example, has been marginalised for a long time. We want a president who will not only develop the two other regions but the north as well," said Gondwe.

Gondwe is unlikely to put his cross next to the name of Malawi’s current president Mutharika who belongs to the Lhomwe tribe of southern Malawi. Mutharika has been repeatedly accused by analysts and politicians, including his main contender Tembo, of giving preference to people from his tribe when appointing cabinet ministers and parastatal organisations.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Separating the ‘‘Ultra-Poor’’ from the Poor - Why?

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

A group of civil society organisations in Malawi is pushing for changes to the country’s controversial social cash transfer scheme which has caused tension in communities as it attempts to separate the poor from the ‘‘very poor’’ in a country where some 65 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day.

Pilot programmes to test the scheme are underway in seven of Malawi’s 27 districts. Cash transfers have been proven to be effective in the reduction of poverty as households use cash in various ways to improve their livelihoods, from spending the money on food to education to agricultural production to even saving money and starting small businesses.

The ministry of women and child development and the ministry of economic planning and development are implementing the social cash transfer scheme, which was launched in September 2006.

Technical and financial assistance for the programme comes from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment (IPRSE), which leads 50 non-governmental organisations advocating for social protection, argues that the scheme is creating problems.

The reason for this is its targeting of a category of ‘‘ultra-poor’’ in a country where most people live below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.

IPRSE Director of Programmes and Development Paul Msoma says that the scheme attempts to separate the poorest from the poor. The question that has arisen is, ‘‘who is really poor and who is not poor enough to benefit from the programme’’, Msoma tells IPS in an interview.

IPRSE is concerned that, given the vast numbers of very poor people in Malawi, especially in the rural areas, providing assistance to a few of them will not make a great difference towards the country’s goal of reducing poverty and hunger.

‘‘If you go into a typical Malawi village, almost everyone is very poor yet the cash transfer scheme is targeting very few people,’’ Msoma points out.

The civil society grouping queries the system used to identify beneficiaries as it poses difficulties for communities. Recipients of the money from the scheme are nominated by a local community social protection committee (CSPC) which is composed of community members. These include the traditional leaders of the area and other respected members of the villages.

The CSPC draws up a list of households living in grim conditions and refers this to a district social protection sub-committee (SPSC), made up of social workers and provincial government officials. The SPSC verifies and approves nominations.

This process ‘‘is creating complications. The people who are equally poor are being asked to make decisions to make others better-off. There should be a better way of identifying beneficiaries,’’ contends Msoma.

He explains that the targeting of very few people is also causing ‘‘unnecessary tensions’’ in the poor communities.

In Mchinji, central Malawi, 65-year-old Malita Namalomba laments that her neighbours ‘‘despise’’ her. Namalomba, a widow, looks after seven grandchildren. Two of her children died within two years and she had to adopt her grandchildren.

‘‘I am happy that the cash transfer scheme has enabled me to look after all these children. The money makes me able to feed them all and send them to school,’’ she admits. But she is worried that other families living in poverty are unhappy with not benefiting from the scheme.

‘‘I was lucky that I was identified to benefit from the scheme. All my neighbours are poor and they need similar help. They despise me now and I can’t do anything about it,’’ says Namalomba.

The amount of money disbursed to beneficiaries like Namalomba is dependent on household size. The minimum grant is 4.20 dollars for a household of one person. The scheme also encourages school enrolment: an extra 1.30 dollars is granted for each child enrolled in primary school and 2.60 dollars for children in secondary school.

Nicholas Freeland, programme director at the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), agrees with the local NGOs that some negative lessons have indeed emerged from the pilot social cash transfer scheme.

The RHVP supports policy-makers and practitioners concerned with food security, social protection and vulnerability in southern Africa and is funded by the UK’s department for international development.

‘‘Community-based targeting is open to abuse. It does not work in a Malawian context to identify the most vulnerable people,’’ explains Freeland. This is because there is a little difference between the poorest households.

It is unfair and unethical to select only 10 percent of them to receive a transfer that will ‘‘leapfrog’’ them over almost equally poor members of the community. ‘‘Unless of course you re-target on a regular basis, which is complex and expensive,’’ states Freeland.

Experience in many other countries has shown that the best way to target the poorest in society is not to try to identify them individually but to use categories that are associated with a higher likelihood of poverty, such as elderly people, young infants, the disabled and women.

‘‘Such categories are much more easily understood by recipients and non-recipients alike, much less easy to exploit or corrupt, much simpler to administer and therefore much more politically acceptable,’’ Freeland tells IPS.

Despite these objections by NGOs, the Malawian government is planning on expanding the scheme. It is working on scaling up the cash transfers with an aim to eventually make them available to all districts in the country.

According to a government report, preliminary survey results indicate that the money is ‘‘properly’’ used by beneficiaries as it is invested in meeting people’s immediate, basic needs while some households are able to make some savings from the scheme.

The government has also come up with new guiding principles which include simplifying the programme so that it is well understood by communities.

Meanwhile, IPRSE has vowed to continue lobbying government to revisit the targeting of the social cash transfer scheme. (END/2009)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Women’s Group Sues Govt Over Abortion Rights

No choice for pregnant women in Malawi?

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Apr 29 - An influential women rights organisation in Malawi, Women in Law in Southern Africa-Malawi (WILSA-Malawi), is suing the government of Malawi for preventing women from accessing safe abortion.

Malawian law prohibits abortion - Section 149 of the country’s penal code says any person who administers abortion shall be liable to imprisonment for 14 years, while Section 150 indicates that any woman who solicits abortion is liable to seven years imprisonment.

But WILSA-Malawi’s executive director, Seodi White, calls the existing laws nonsensical because they infringe on women’s rights. She says they force women to seek back-street abortions from traditional healers and illegal clinics thereby putting their lives in danger.

"These laws do not make sense at all. They are contributing towards the death of so many women. We need to get rid of them as soon as possible," urged White.

Government statistics in Malawi indicate that up to 30 percent of maternal deaths in the country are due to abortion. Malawi’s maternal mortality is one of the highest in Africa - second only to war-torn Sierra Leone.

White says refusing women the right to abort is discrimination. "Access to legal and safe abortion services is essential to the protection of women’s rights to non-discrimination and equality. Where women are compelled to continue unwanted pregnancies, it puts them at a disadvantage because abortion is a medical procedure that only women need," she told IPS.

White argues that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has implied that the denial of medical procedures that only women need is a form of discrimination against women. "Therefore, restrictive abortion laws may amount in certain cases to discrimination against women," she concluded.

WILSA-Malawi is also contending that when pregnancy is unwanted, a legal requirement to continue the pregnancy may constitute government intrusion on a woman’s body. "We are therefore taking the Malawi government to court for failing to protect the women in the country," explained White.

WILSA-Malawi, whose main mandate is to work towards improving women's human rights from a legal and social perspective, has already celebrated one major success in changing legislation to improve women’s rights.

In 2006, the organisation facilitated the enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, after a long battle against the country’s deeply rooted culture and beliefs that wife beating was normal.

Legal battle

Meanwhile, a number of other organisations have joined WILSA-Malawi in the debate on unsafe abortion. For instance, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), a government body working on developing and sustaining a culture of respect for human rights among all people in Malawi, indicated that one of the issues the country needs to tackle is abortion.

"This is part of addressing reproductive and sexual health rights of all Malawians. This is important, because there is overwhelming evidence of dangerous termination of pregnancies among women and girl children of Malawi," said MHRC executive director Dr. Aubrey Mvula.

He says the initiative is in line with global women’s rights protocols, such as the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and the Beijing Declaration and its Platform of Action. ICPD objectives include universal access to reproductive care services, while the Beijing Declaration urges governments to review laws that contain punitive measures against women who undergo illegal abortion.

Mvula stressed the fact that international human rights law supports the need to terminate pregnancy to promote and protect other human rights.

"Therefore, MHRC submits that Malawi needs to move forward and significantly promote the health of women and the girl child by making sure that all dangerous pregnancies acquired through unwanted, ill-advised and accidental sexual activities or economic problems need to be terminated on that basis," he said.

Unsafe abortions

In response to demands by MHRC and WILSA-Malawi, the Reproductive Health Unit (RHU) within Malawi’s Department of Health admitted that unsafe abortions are rampant in the country.

RHU deputy director Fannie Kachale points out that most countries with low maternal death rates, such as South Africa and Ghana, have had to permit induced abortion and that legalising abortion has not led to increased number of abortions in those countries. "It has just shifted [numbers from] unsafe to safe abortions," she said.

Kachale explained that while the government of Malawi does not permit abortion, it indirectly acknowledges the fact that illegal abortions take place, because it provides post-abortion care to women who underwent abortions and have developed complications.

According to IPAS, an international organisation working globally to increase women's ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to reduce abortion-related deaths and injuries, by providing post-abortion care, the government of Malawi is confirming that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.

Dr. Eunice Brookman-Amissah, vice president of IPAS Africa, told IPS that women usually have valid and important reasons for abortion. "Women tend to seek abortions when pregnancies are not supported by their partners, families or communities, when the pregnancy may threaten the woman’s health or survival or when the foetus has abnormalities. It’s not for immoral reasons," she said.

Brookman-Amissah also explained that the medical process of abortion is usually simpler and cheaper than post-abortion care. "Induced abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. But with unsafe abortion, women easily develop complications, such as hemorrhage, infections, incomplete abortion and secondary infertility. These conditions are very expensive to treat," said Dr. Brookman-Amissah.

As the example of Malawi shows, making abortion illegal does not prevent them from happening. "Where safe abortion is unavailable, women go for unsafe abortion through the ingestion of herbs, bleach, gasoline and gun powder. Others go for vaginal insertions of sharp tools such as twigs and pouches filled with arsenic," explained Brookman-Amissah.

Some women have also been reported to hit themselves into the stomach, while others throw themselves from high places to abort the foetus. According to IPAS, apart from death, consequences of unsafe abortion include significant short and long-term illness, injury and infertility.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bringing TB Testing and Treatment To Those Who Need It

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Mar 24 (IPS) - Malawi does not have accurate statistics that define the extent of tuberculosis (TB) cases within its borders, and there are fears that only half of those infected with the disease are able to access testing and treatment.

Technical advisor of the country’s National TB Control Programme (NTCP), Dr. Daniel Nyangulu, said TB is one of the top killer diseases in the country, together with malaria and HIV/AIDS. "Every year, [we estimate that] up to 30,000 people are treated for TB, and 8,000 die of the disease. TB is a huge public health problem," said Nyangulu.

In the 1980s, TB infections were much lower, with public health facilities having to treat only 5,000 TB patients per year.

Malawi’s fears that only half of those infected with the disease are accessing treatment are supported by 2008 World Health Organisation (WHO) data, which estimate that there were more than 50,000 new cases of TB in the country last year. Malawi falls short of the WHO recommended treatment success rate of 85 percent by at least 13 percent. But all existing data are estimates.

NTCP has therefore embarked on a campaign to provide universal access to TB testing and treatment. Sputum collection centres have been established in hard-to-reach rural areas that don’t have health facilities. Members of local communities are volunteering to collect sputum from people with TB symptoms. The volunteers then transport the samples to the closest health facility for testing.

According to the United Nations, up to 85 percent of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas where about 60 percent of the people live below the poverty line of $1 per day. It is difficult for them to seek medical care when they need it, especially if public health facilities are far away from their villages and they don’t have the money to pay for transportation.

"We have discovered through surveys that most people in villages are not accessing health services such as TB detection services easily. This is mainly because of the distances they have to travel to get to the nearest health centres and also because of the high poverty levels," explained Nyangulu. Residents of rural areas have to travel an average of five kilometres to reach a clinic or hospital.

Lack of knowledge about TB has also been cited as contributing to the fact that few Malawians get tested, said Nyangulu. He said most people in rural areas have little information about the disease and therefore fail to recognise its symptoms.

Mtsiriza, a rural community on the outskirts of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, is one area that has benefited from the universal access initiatives launched by NTCP. Now that sputum collection centres have been established in the community, people have been flocking to the centre to be tested in high numbers. NTCP is also encouraging home-based care services, delivered by community volunteers who observe and follow up on treatment for TB patients.

John Chiguduli (48) is one of the patients who has been cured from TB due to the new centre in Mtsiriza. "I have been sick for about a year, and I haven’t been able to work at all. I felt very weak but I could not access testing services because the hospital is far away from here, and I didn’t have money for transport. I only got diagnosed with TB when a medical facility was set up here in my village," Chiguduli told IPS.

He believes the NTCP initiative of bringing health care to the people, instead of expecting people to make their way to health facilities, has saved his life. "I nearly died. The testing service came to my area just in time to save me," said Chiguduli, who is now able to work his fields again.

The community TB initiative also encourages all members of a household with a TB patient, especially children, to be tested.

In addition, NTCP offers ‘active screening’ at its TB testing centres, which means that HIV testing is offered in combination with TB tests. This way, government tries to identify the large number of TB/HIV co-infections, which the national health department estimates to be 77 percent.

NTCP has also established walk-in centres in the country’s main health facilities, such as referral hospitals, to enable people to access TB testing services without having to join the long queues of patients requiring other hospital services.

Hospital waiting times are usually long because Malawi is facing acute shortage of health personnel. The Department of Health indicates that up to 120 registered nurses leave the country per year for better-paying jobs in the developing world. Currently, 50 patients are looked after by only one nurse, while one doctor is responsible for 64,000 patients, according to health department figures.

In addition to bringing TB testing to rural areas as part of its universal access strategy, the NTCP makes special efforts to provide testing services in other TB hot spots, such as prisons. "Most of the prisons in the country are overcrowded and this becomes a breeding ground for TB," said Nyangulu, explaining that prison authorities are now encouraged to offer TB testing to every new prisoner and offer testing services for all prisoners on a regular basis.

Yet, health experts realise that efforts to curb TB will be less effective if Malawi does not have accurate statistics on the TB situation in the country. The health department is therefore planning to embark upon a national prevalence survey later this year. "Right now, we only have estimates, but we need specific figures to be able to treat all cases properly," said Nyangulu.


Water makes the difference

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Mar 20 (IPS) - Water has become the very essence of economic development for a rural community of Ngolowindo, in Malawi’s lake district of Salima, where households are reducing poverty thanks to irrigation.

Ninety percent of Malawi's agriculture is rain-fed but government is now pushing for more diversification into irrigation farming which allows farmers to grow crops even in the dry season and allows for additional harvests.

Taking advantage of the fresh water from Lake Malawi, the people of Ngolowindo are using simple irrigation methods to grow such produce as tomatoes, cabbages, mustard, onions, okra, green pepper, green beans, lettuce and maize on 17 hectares of land.

A vibrant agricultural cooperative, the Ngolowindo Horticultural Cooperative Society, has since emerged in the area and 159 people are now members. Each individual farmer is allocated a small piece of communal land and assigned a specific crop to grow. The produce is collected into one lot and is put on the market.

Eluby Tsekwe, the cooperative’s chairperson, proudly told IPS that her community has become the largest supplier of fresh produce to the residents of the country’s capital city, Lilongwe.

"We supply all the main supermarkets and individual vendors in the capital city with fresh produce which they sell to residents of the city. We make a substantial sum of money from there and this sustains our livelihoods," she said.

Tsekwe said that members have to be 18 years and above. "We don’t want to get children into the cooperative since we believe they should be in school and not be involved in any type of child labour," said Tsekwe.

For Tsekwe, a single mother of five, the financial benefits of this collective endeavour are evident; all her children, aged between four and 19, are in school. Despite her divorce leaving her alone as head of her household, she is also able to provide three meals every day to all her children in a country where, according to the United Nations, seven out of 10 households typically run out of food before every harvesting season.

Tsekwe has also managed to build a house of bricks with an iron sheet roof and cement floors. "A typical house here is one with mud walls and floors with a grass-thatched roof but I can afford to live better and I am very proud of myself," she said.

But it has not been all rosy for the Ngolowindo project, according to Coordinator of Ngolowindo Horticultural Cooperative Society, Mercy Butao.

The cooperative coordinator explains that the agricultural initiative started at Ngolowindo in 1985 as an irrigation scheme and only became a cooperative in 2001. She said the project was initially driven by the government’s departments of water and agriculture through traditional leaders and community members.

"As a scheme, individual farmers worked in their own fields. They could only benefit from communal irrigation systems, but they were each others' competitors when it came to marketing their produce," Butao told IPS. During this time, the maintenance of irrigation structures such as drainage canals and irrigation canals was suffering.

The scheme was turned into a cooperative to improve marketing of the produce and for a more organized management of the project, according to Butao, but this also solved problems of maintenance.

"The farmers applied for funding from the European Union soon after forming the cooperative, and they used the money to upgrade their agricultural skills in irrigation farming and modern ways of crop production," said Butao.

The Ngolowindo farmers have also been trained in marketing fundamentals, financial management, organisation management and agro-processing.

The Cooperation for the Development of Emerging Countries (Cospe), an Italian non-governmental organisation, has also assisted the Ngolowindo Horticultural Cooperative Society in the constructing irrigation structures and in human resources. Butao, for instance, is an agricultural expert, employed by Cospe since 2002 to provide technical support to the cooperative.

"The Ngolowindo project has grown so much and it is now moving into agro-processing," Butao told IPS. She said in the absence of a processing project, there had been a lot of wastage of produce since the crops being grown are perishables.

"The cooperative has now diversified into the production of tomato juice and tomato sauce," said Butao.

The project has 18 people working in agro-processing, using hand-powered machines to process the agricultural products. "We are yet to make it big in the agro-processing business. Our products are not developed enough to compete on market but we are working hard towards advancing further," said Butao.

The cooperative is also working towards diversifying into livestock farming so as to use excess produce from the farming to feed the animals. "We also want to promote the use of animal manure in our farm," Butao said.

Another member of the cooperative, Ginacio Kamoto, explains that he has benefited a lot from the cooperative. "I am able to provide employment to some people in my area. I employ them as casual labourers to assist me with farming. I employ up to six people per growing season," said Kamoto.

But people like Tsekwe and Kamoto are still the exception in Malawi where up to 65 percent of the 13.1 million people live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the country is only irrigating 72,000 of 400,000 hectares of irrigable land. The country is yet to fully utilise Lake Malawi, a fresh water length which stretches the length of the country is the ninth largest lake in the world.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Malawi's Women Challenge For Top Posts

by Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Mar 5 (IPS) - Sitting side by side, clothed in bright traditional outfits complete with headgear, they looked like any of the women who always dance and ululate for politicians at rallies.

But Loveness Gondwe and Beatrice Mwale are exceptional: with their newly formed Rainbow Coalition party, they are vying for the country’s top most positions of president and vice president respectively in Malawi’s May 19, 2009 presidential elections.

Malawi’s current president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has also picked a woman, Joyce Banda, to be his running-mate in the elections. But it is yet to be seen if the women will indeed make it to the top.

Such political positions have so far been a domain for men in Malawi - a woman’s role has mainly been limited to dancing and cheering for their leaders - mostly men.

For instance, Gondwe, the country’s first female presidential aspirant, has not had it easy in politics. She formed the Rainbow Coalition Party because the Alliance for Democracy (Aford), the party she has represented since 1994 - rising higher than any woman before her in the national assembly, where she was voted to the position of First Deputy Speaker - refused to endorse her as presidential candidate.

"I am an achiever and capable of bringing positive change to people’s lives and I am qualified to lead this nation," Gondwe told the local media upon presenting her presidential nomination letter to the Malawi Electoral Commission.

She said if elected, she would like to make more employment opportunities available to the youth, in a country where the unemployment rate is at 45.5 percent.

Gondwe also aims to improve the conditions of service for civil servants who are the lowly paid and to support small holder farmers who play a big role in Malawi’s economy, which is predominantly agricultural.

"I would also like to see the maternal death rate going down so that women are able to participate in development work," Gondwe said. Malawi's maternal mortality is one of the highest in the continent at 807 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Banda, President Mutharika’s running-mate, who was Malawi’s foreign minister before her appointment, also told the media that she has been fighting a hostile environment as a female politician.

"I have had to learn how to navigate and find my way. People have seen my performance as a member of parliament. I am not emotional but solid and realistic. I have done my best as a cabinet minister and I will prevail in any political, social and economic storm," said Banda.

All women vying for political positions in Malawi are benefitting from the support being rendered by the 50:50 Campaign, a national programme on increasing women's participation in politics and decision-making positions. The campaign is being coordinated by the Ministry of Women and Child Development with support from international donors including the United Nations.

The programme provides campaign finances and materials to women aspiring to political positions, to expose them to the public through media and to provide them with training in personal development. Up to 150 women have presented their nominations papers to contest for the 193 parliamentary seats. Currently, there are only 27 women out of the 193 members in Malawi’s Parliament.

Programme coordinator for the 50:50 Campaign in the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Bertha Sefu, admits that it is an uphill battle to achieve equal participation for women in decision-making positions.

Sefu told IPS that Malawian society favours men more than women but that the 50:50 Campaign has managed to position women well and that the country is now realising that women can be trusted with decision-making positions.

"We have seen that the women candidates for political positions are getting more and more support from both men and women and we hope this means that the situation is changing. We are optimistic that we will have women in the very top positions of government by May," said Sefu.

Beyond the selection of Banda as Mutharika’s running-mate, people have to wait for the elections results in May to see if indeed more women are being given the opportunity to be political leaders.

While the situation seems to be growing more favourable for women in politics; it is a different story in the civil service and private sector. Currently, only seven women out of 38 are in ministerial positions - only four are full ministers and three are deputies. Just five out of 38 permanent secretaries in government ministries are women and just 21 percent in other top level positions are held by women. In the judiciary, women are not well represented either, since there are only four female judges out of 27.

On the positive side, the positions of chairperson of Malawi electoral commission, clerk of parliament, chairperson of Malawi Human Rights commission, attorney General and parliamentary draftsperson are currently being held by women.

Gender specialist for the United Nations in Malawi Veronica Njikho says the focus now is on the forthcoming elections but once that is over, there will be a review of the 50:50 campaign to start focusing on the participation of women in all levels of decision-making including the private sector.

"We will also be lobbying for the participation of women in trade union movements," said Njikho.

Meanwhile it seems like the women of Malawi would still want to continue dancing for political leaders; whether male and female and Banda, the vice president nominee, is one of them.

"Because I am an African, we dance as part of our culture and identify. We dance during birth, we dance when we brew beer, we dance when we praise God, we dance when there is death, we dance when we install chiefs. We dance as a form of appreciation and expression of our feelings," said Banda.

She said dancing is part of who Malawians are. "It does not take away anybody’s dignity. I will dance alone as an African. I have advised my children that when I die, nobody should cry, but celebrate my life, I expect people to dance in celebration of my life. Dancing is part of who we are and we cannot stop that," said Banda.

It is yet to be seen if men will be forming dance groups for women politicians.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Rains Expose Poor Sanitation

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
LILONGWE, Jan 23 (IPS) - Zimbabwe - where cholera has claimed more than 2,700 lives so far according to the Red Cross - is not the only southern African country facing increased disease as rains set in across the region. Malawi is also battling a cholera outbreak which has killed 19 people since the onset of the rainy season, an unusually high death toll.

Up to 485 cases of the epidemic have since been registered and treated. World Health Organisation records from the 2007/2008 rainy season indicate not even a single cholera case was registered in the country's capital, Lilongwe, last year, although up to 20 deaths and 1,022 cases were documented in nine of Malawi's 27 districts.

Apart from the current outbreak in Lilongwe, one other cholera case was treated in the country's commercial capital, Blantyre, two weeks ago, but this was imported from Zimbabwe, according to Malawi's principal secretary for health Chris Kang'ombe.

"Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre treated a Zimbabwean truck driver who had cholera. He recovered and has since returned to Zimbabwe," said Kang'ombe.

There is a lot of cross-border trade and movement between Malawi and neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi health authorities have been on alert and intensifying civic education on cholera to ensure that the serious Zimbabwe cholera situation does not spread into the country, according to Kang'ombe.

But cholera is not primarily spread directly from person to person. The country's health experts have attributed the problem to lack of safe water combined with poor sanitation and poor hygiene.

The outbreak has hit Lilongwe, and surrounding communities hardest. Kang'ombe said all the people that have died were resident in Malawi's fastest-growing city which has large populations living in slums with little access to safe water. Cholera is transmitted through contaminated water or food.

"We encounter cholera outbreaks almost every rainy season when people who have little or no access to safe water resort to using untreated water from swamps," Kang'ombe told IPS.

The Banda clan, living on the outskirts of Lilongwe city, has lost two family members to the disease within a period of two weeks. Another member of the family was also infected but has recovered after treatment.

A clan member, Jabu Banda, said his aunt got ill with cholera two weeks ago and was admitted to one of the tents erected in Likuni, one of Lilongwe's high density areas, by the ministry of health specially to care for cholera victims. "She died two days after being taken to the health centre," said Banda.

He said his niece also started showing signs of cholera a week after the death in the family. "We took her to the health centre but she also died a day later," Banda said.

Banda said his cousin who played the role of guardian for the two victims was also diagnosed with cholera last week.

"She has just been discharged from the clinic but she is yet to recover fully. She is very weak," Banda told IPS.

In managing the outbreak, Malawi's Ministry of Health has erected special tents near local hospitals and within areas that have been highly affected by the cholera outbreak.

"The idea is to avoid mixing cholera patients with others admitted to hospitals for other less contagious illnesses," said Kang'ombe.

He said the outbreak would have been quickly contained if people had improved on their hygiene. Kang'ombe said a lot of people in townships and surrounding areas eat fresh foods such as fruits without washing them. Fruits such as mangos, bananas and pineapples are in abundance during the rainy season in Malawi.

"We are providing chlorine to households for them to be able treat their water. We are also stopping communities from preparing food at gatherings such as funerals and to avoid buying cooked food from streets to avoid contamination," he said.

The ministry has also cautioned people who handle corpses of cholera cases to be extra careful. Culturally, most communities in Malawi administer a bath to the dead just before burial.

Meanwhile, there are more fears of cholera outbreaks in other parts of Malawi – health officials are vigilant in the flood-prone areas of the country which include southern districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, the lowest-lying areas of Malawi, which experience floods annually and where cholera epidemics are most common during the rainy season.

Floods have already affected 2,100 households in 21 villages in Nsanje district and 1,573 other families in Chikwawa district since the beginning of the New Year, according to government statistics from district commissioners' offices.

A task force comprising the Ministry of Health, United Nations Children's Fund – (UNICEF), World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Kingdom's Department For International Development (DFID) is currently working to promote civic education on hygiene and chlorination of water sources in the country to control further cholera outbreaks.

Malawi's rainy season runs from November to May and the country still has five more months to contend with cholera.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Climate Change Threatens Livelihoods

By Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Dec 26 - Climate change will affect the Zambezi River basin more severely than any other river system in the world, according to Kenneth Msibi, Water Policy and Strategy Expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Increased floods, drought and increased levels of disease threaten lives and livelihoods all along the river’s length.

"Frequent floods and intense droughts are becoming more frequent occurrences in our region. We need to use our existing water resources as a catalyst for development so that we don’t get overwhelmed by the effects of climate change," said Msibi.

Coordinator for the Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa project, Miriam Kalanda-Sabola, told IPS that farming communities in Malawi and Tanzania, for instance, have in the past 30 years experienced considerable negative climate change effects in both semi-arid and high rainfall areas.

Throughout the basin, agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and the people of these states are facing declining agricultural productivity which is being linked to worsening poverty and increasing food insecurity.

The semi-arid areas of Tanzania have seen declining crop yields, poor livestock production, and increasing domestic animal diseases. Many communities have abandoned the production of traditional crops. But farmers in areas of high rainfall are also in difficulty.

"The high rainfall areas in Tanzania are facing declining soil fertility, stunted crop growth, destruction of mature crops in the field and stored ones," said Kalanda-Sabola.

In Malawi's semi-arid areas, communities are seeing increasing periods of hunger and loss of property due to floods while droughts have reduced grazing for livestock due to droughts.

Meanwhile, the high rainfall areas are experiencing soil erosion and frequent landslides, increasing incidence of malaria and loss of crops and animals due to floods.

"The most vulnerable victims facing the effects of the changes in climatic conditions are the poor, women, children, elders, people with less education, sick people and communities in areas with poor infrastructures and less social network," said Kalanda-Sabola.

New and increased levels of disease are also having a negative impact on agriculture, according to Professor Moses John Chimbari, Deputy Director at Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre (HOORC), a research institute at the University of Botswana.

He says droughts and floods due to rising temperatures are creating a conducive environment for diseases such as malaria and meningitis. He said there are already many more episodes of malaria in the riparian states because of the favourable atmosphere for mosquitoes that has already been created due to the climatic changes.

"This has a great impact on agriculture and the economies since people are sick most of the times and they are not being very productive," said Chimbari.

He said most countries in the Zambezi riparian states have little capacity to adapt to high incidence of diseases and that this makes many people even more vulnerable.

He worried that HIV/AIDS is also adding to these stresses.

"We need to reverse the trends that increase vulnerability to climate change through food security. We will actually be the most vulnerable region if we continue to be where we are now," said Chimbari.

The researcher called for states to improve their health facilities and be able to cope with the health hazards being posed by climate change.

The adaptation strategies that are being employed in Malawi include switching to drought-resistant crops like cassava, increased irrigation farming, growing early-maturing hybrid varieties of crops and the use of organic manure.

In Tanzania, farmers are also turning to drought resistant crops such as sunflowers, and employing small scale irrigation, improved social networks such as cooperatives and the use of improved seed varieties.

Kalanda-Sabola approves of all these strategies and further calls for more livestock farming -- especially in the high rainfall sites -- and timely access to vital and simple information on climate change and variability.

She says farmers in the region are being hampered by resource limitations including lack of enough crop land, lack of accessibility to loans and farm inputs. She underlines the need for a strengthening of capacity for implementation among communities.

"Most farmers are failing to meet transaction costs necessary to acquire adaptation measures as they also have no or little access to external markets," she said.

Harnessing the Zambezi

LILONGWE, Dec 2 - If the socio-economic development goals of the eight countries that share the Zambezi River basin are to be met, countries along the river should quickly implement plans towards managing water resources in an efficient, effective and sustainable manner.

This was the agreement made during the Fourth Zambezi Basin-wide Stakeholders Forum which took place in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe from Nov. 26-27.

The gathering, an annual event of stock-taking and strategising first held in 2005, focuses on managing the resources of the Zambezi basin. This year's forum was aimed at turning the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) Strategy and implementation plan of the Zambezi river basin resources into action.

The IWRM spells out how the eight Zambezi Riparian States -- Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe -- can share the benefits derived from the water resources of the Zambezi River Basin in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Malawi's Principal Secretary for irrigation and water development, Andrina Mchiela, alerted the forum to several serious warning signs concerning the water situation in the region. She said that many rivers in the water basin are now running dry before they reach the lakes or seas they previously emptied into. Across the region, water tables are drying up and wetlands are fast disappearing. She said there was need to speed up the process of implementing the IWRM to counter these negative developments.

The IWRM strategy addresses four issues, namely lack of coordinated water resources development, poor environmental management approaches, weak climate change adaptation measures and weak regional cooperation and integration mechanisms.

"There is need for a very careful management of the water resources in the Zambezi Water Basin," said Mchiela.

Mchiela said there is growing demand for fresh water in the region, which, she said, is currently using 50 percent of all fresh water sources.

"At the current trend, by 2025, we shall be using 75 percent of all the fresh water," said Mchiela.

Globally, up to one billion people lack clean water, two billion have no proper sanitation and seven billion will be faced with severe water shortages by 2015, according to Mchiela. She said the IWRM should be used to improve the situation, at least in the region.

"We need in-basin people that are dedicated towards finding solutions to these challenges," said Mchiela.

Another problem facing the Zambezi Basin is the impact of climate change. According to Kenneth Msibi, Water Policy and Strategy Expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Zambezi is the worst-affected basin in the world.

Frequent floods and intense droughts are expected to become even more frequent occurrences. In 2007 alone, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe all experienced intense flooding which affected more than half a million people.

Msibi said that a large part of the population of six of the eight states along the Zambezi live below the poverty line and water management has a role to play in economic and social development for the region.

"The challenge is to use water as a catalyst for development," said Msibi. "We now need to see tangible actions if the region has to achieve poverty reduction and economic prosperity," said Msibi.

He said water, food and energy security can be realised from the Zambezi water basin, explaining that it is the biggest river basin in SADC with abundant water resources and good soils that need to be effectively utilised.

"There is so much potential in this water basin," said Msibi.

The Zambezi basin is home to over 40 million people, according to the 2007 IWRM Forum Report. The basin is reported to be rich in human, social, political, economic, natural and ecological diversity and has high potential for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, wildlife and hydroelectric power generation.

David Harrison, Senior Advisor and Consultant for Global Freshwater Team, called on the Zambezi water basin riparian states to learn from the effective management currently taking place on China's Yangtze River basin. The Yangtze is the world's third longest river.

Harrison cited flood control initiatives, constructing and operating of dams in ways that reduce impacts on the river and its aquatic populations as some of the projects that should be encouraged in the Zambezi water basin.

The formulation of the IWRM followed the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM) agreement signed by the eight riparian states in July 2004. The countries indicated that they recognized the significance of the Zambezi watercourse as a major water resource in the region and the need to conserve, protect and sustainably utilise the resources of the basin. The states also committed themselves to ensure equitable and reasonable utilization and efficient management and sustainable development of the water basin resources.

The forum came up with resolutions to improve water reservoir management for improved food security and for the rehabilitation, management and monitoring of environmental-vulnerable areas in the basin.

The forum was attended by delegates from government ministries for environment, water, justice, finance, fisheries, forestry, agriculture and energy, non-governmental organisations working in environment and water sectors, traditional leaders who represented their communities, universities and research institutions, parliamentarians, private sector, and local government leaders.

Elections Get Ugly For Women

Nov 24 - Malawi’s primary elections are getting ugly for women candidates. Shoving, derogatory songs and being pelted with stones are just some of the intimidating tactics aimed at discouraging women from contesting the primary elections that will select candidates for the parliamentary polls in May 2009.

Gertrude Nya Mkandawire, one of the strongest members of parliament (MP) for the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP), recently withdrew from the primaries in her Mzimba Solora constituency, in the north, where she was running against 10 men.

"I can’t take it anymore," Nya Mkandawire told IPS. "I have faced different kinds of intimidation from fellow contenders, who are all men."

Angry crowds sang demeaning songs and shoved her around at rallies. "They have been destroying my campaign materials, including flags and posters, in the night to discourage me from contesting," she added.

The last straw came when DPP committee members and primary delegates demanded money.

"They said I can only win the elections after I pay them some money and I didn’t find this proper," she told IPS.

The culture of handouts is common here during elections. Politicians distribute money, food and blankets to their constituents, claiming it is their way of sharing wealth.

Gender activist Veronica Njikho says the practice of freebies disadvantages women politicians because men already have an established financial capacity that women do not.

"Only 23 percent of women have an equal say as their partners in economic matters at home and they do not have the same financial muscle as their male counterparts when it comes to politics," Njikho said.

Women drop out

Njikho is a champion of the 50/50 Campaign, led by government and 42 civil society groups, to boost women’s participation in politics and decision-making positions.

The Campaign has condemned the intimidation and harassment of women candidates. Violence is marring some rallies for men candidates as well.

"There is a lot of political violence being reported from all corners of Malawi and this is discouraging a lot of women from participating in the elections," said Njikho.

The gender expert explained that most women do not want to be associated with or be victims of abuse: "Naturally, women are not violent people."

An unprecedented 425 women wanted to run for parliament at the onset of the 50/50 Campaign but only 200 persevered. "The rest dropped from the race mainly due to the harassment and intimidation," Njikho told IPS.

She fears that the growing reports of intimidation during the primaries will prompt more women to abandon politics.

The Campaign seeks to see women win at least half of the 193 seats in the national assembly, in keeping with the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender, signed in August, which mandates a 50 percent representation of women in government by 2015.

Malawi scores below the Sub-Saharan average of female representation in parliament, with women accounting for 14 per cent of its national assembly.

The biggest challenge for the Campaign, said Njikho, is the uneven political playing field. Men hold the top political positions, they support their fellow men and resist women candidates.

Leaders fail women

Lilian Patel, an MP and chair of the Malawi Parliamentary Women Caucus, blamed party leaders for these problems. Just like the DPP, the other main political parties -- the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) -- are headed by men.

"All political parties in the country have failed to put up deliberate efforts to ensure that women are propped up," said Patel, a UDF member.

On Nov. 13, a primary election in the lake district of Nkhatabay ended with a stampede, when DPP supporters started throwing stones after a dispute over eligible voters. Three women were contesting these primaries.

Meanwhile, Nya Mkandawire is not giving up on politics. She is considering running as an independent candidate or joining another party.

To discourage this choice, the DPP came up with a trick, she explained. DPP candidates collecting the nomination forms for the primaries had to sign a declaration that, in the event of losing, they would support the winners, and not run as independents or join other parties.

"The declaration would have been fair if the elections were fair but, in this case, we have to look for other alternatives if we have to stay in politics," said Nya Mkandawire.

Dodging stones and insults is not an alternative she will consider. Respect and safety for all women candidates, that is what she wants.

New Efforts for Citizen Power

Dr. Fletcher Tembo
Civil society organisations in Malawi are keen on the newly introduced Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) which, they hope, will provide people with more power to ensure that there is proper governance and transparency in the country.

Up to 65 percent of Malawi's 13.1 million people live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day, according to Malawi government statistics.

Malawi's transparency and accountability record is also not very good -- the country is ranked number 115 out of 180 countries in the 2008 Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

A new programme -- funded by the 130 million pound Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) of the Department for International Development (DFID), the arm of the UK Government that manages Britain's aid to poor countries -- designed to help citizens hold their governments to account may help.

The "Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches" programme -- which will be implemented in various African countries -- was launched in Malawi's capital on Nov. 19, 2008.

Overseas Development Institute (ODI) director Dr Fletcher Tembo said at the launch of the project that there is need to strengthen the country's budding democracy through participatory governance and social accountability.

Tembo explained that the programme is about facilitating citizen's voices through the engagement of civil society, independent media, elected representative and other non-state actors.

He said following the launch of the programme, a national coordinating organisation will be appointed to provide grants to the media, parliament and civil society organisations in their pursuit to intensify governance and transparency issues.

"The whole emphasis of the fund hinges on citizenry power. The programme would want to enable the citizens meet their aspirations better at the same time holding the government accountable," he said.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations, including NGOs, community based organisations, the media, trade unions and the academia, is excited about the GTF. MEJN works on social and economic governance.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira lauded the launch of the programme saying it would strengthen accountability.

"We need to progress as a country and we can only do that if there is good governance and if government is accountable on its spending," said Kumbatira. "The country's citizens therefore have a great role in monitoring government and this will be made possible with the fund," said Kumbatira.

He said there are already existing programmes in the country where citizens participate in holding government and political officials accountable but that these are minimal.

Kumbatira cited the Umunthu (human-ness in Chichewa) Initiative, where constituents are able to summon their member of parliament to explain how he has been representing them in the national assembly, as one of the programs where citizen participation is already working.

"Of course the Umunthu initiative is only happening in two of the country's 27 districts and the GTF will help in expanding such kind of program to all the districts," Kumbatira told IPS.

He also mentioned Budget Monitoring as another already-existing programme with citizen participation. This is implemented by MEJN and communities at local level hold local authorities in their assemblies accountable on public funds.

"Even the Budget Monitoring has lots of gaps as it is done in very few areas due to lack of resources," said Kumbatira.

Kumbatira also said with the GTF, citizens will be able to prevent legislators from misusing public funds the way they did last year when the passing of the Malawi national budget for 2007/2008 was held to ransom by a political impasse between the ruling and opposition parties in Parliament.

The delays in passing the budget affected the progress of development projects and the provision of essential services such as health and education as government could not procure enough supplies without the national budget.

The country's main opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), wanted the Speaker of the House to declare vacant the seats of parliamentarians who had crossed the floor to join President Bingu wa Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The opposition parties were citing Section 65 of the Constitution, which stops legislators from leaving the parties that put them into power. Mutharika himself won the presidency under the UDF but dumped it after becoming president and went on to form the Democratic People's Party.

The budget which was supposed to be passed on June 2007 was not passed until September and Mutharika told people in a national radio broadcast that up to $2.2 million was wasted by Parliamentarians during the squabble which yielded no results. The parliamentarians who crossed the floor still have their seats in the national assembly.

"We want to see an end to such inconsiderate conduct by parliamentarians and we will use the GTF to work with citizens to ensure that transparency and accountability is the order of the day," Kumbatira told IPS.

*The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain's leading independent think-tank on development and humanitarian issues, is driving the implementation of the "Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches" in partnership with the Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa and CIVICUS.