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)