President Joyce Banda took, what many call, the worst and hardest job in Africa, at a time when Malawians needed a savior. Malawi was on the brink of economic collapse after months of petrol shortages, price rises and unrest.
Discontent lingers, but the economy is improving. Despite jubilation on political podiums; the technocrats are more cautious. Expectations remain high, but much needs to be done if there is to be an economic turn-around.
Banda inherited Malawi’s deteriorating economy from late President Bingu wa Mutharika. Aid dried up when Malawi failed to secure an Extended Credit Facility (ECF) with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after disagreements over political and economic governance. In 2011 and 2012, problems with foreign exchange meant problems with petrol. It led to rationing and queues. Production fell as key firms left the country.
“Malawi is still teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. It is obviously not out of the woods economically yet […],” says Dalitso Kubalasa, an executive director at the Malawi Economic Justice Network.
The administration in Malawi has taken bold steps to turn around the economy. This has been far from the dangerous economic trajectory the economy was destined for, particularly with the infamous Zero-Deficit Budget (ZDB) of 2011/12 fiscal year. The ZDB stance hindered the economy more than helped it; punitive tax measures were introduced, invoking a huge outcry.
The ZDB framework was supported by around MK30 billions ($87.9 million) of printed money printing, with MWK20 billion ($58.6 million) domestic borrowing and around MWK72 billion ($211.1 million) in arrears to private sector and banks, according to the quarterly expenditure reports from Malawi’s central bank.
“The Malawi economy was virtually collapsing a year ago. The economy is heavily import-dependent in production. Imports account for about 42% of GDP, among the highest in the world, and yet 60% of exports earnings are accounted for by one commodity: tobacco, which is not only a primary commodity but also has endangered demand. The gap between imports bills and export earnings has been widening at an alarming rate and we had been relying on external aid payment arrears to fill this. Malawi relies on external aid to cover 40% of government expenditure, which is again very high. Poor tobacco prices and a drying up of aid automatically results in an inability to pay for imports, hence accumulation of arrears and loss in credit ratings,” says Ben Kaluwa, an economist at the University of Malawi.
Banda’s decision to devalue the Malawian kwacha, to stabilize the economy, was hailed by the IMF, but led to protests, including a nationwide strike by civil servants in February.
“The biggest challenge has been living up to the people’s expectations of dealing with all the challenges as fast as possible; including the issue of dealing with the negative impact of the economic reforms through some cushioning programs and interventions,” says Kubalasa.
Banda, established a controversial employment scheme in July, attempting to decrease the country’s 50% unemployment rate. One hundred thousand migrant workers will be sent to South Korea, Dubai and Kuwait as unskilled agricultural workers or to work in the hospitality sector. Critics worry that the scheme may result in modern day slavery. Around 40% of Malawians live on less than $1 a day, those who will work in South Korea could earn up to $1,000 a month.
Other key measures undertaken include: the scrapping of the zero-deficit budget; the restoration of fiscal incentives, the absence of which had made the business environment unbearable for new investors; the removal of subsidies by liberalizing the prices of strategic goods.
“Liberalization of the exchange rate and fuel prices were meant to obviate rationed access in favor of market-priced allocation. The liberalization of the utility tariffs was meant to incentivize the utilities to invest and also make the sectors attractive to new private sector investors, including public-private partnerships (PPP). Queues for both forex and fuel have been eliminated and there is expressed interest by the private sector to invest in utilities. Manufacturing firms—which had been operating with excess capacity because of imports and fuel shortages—are now believed to be operating close to capacity,” says Kaluwa.
More governmental measures came in May 2012. They included loosening the executive grip on monetary policy, thereby giving a good measure of decision-making authority and independence to the central bank, which is the requisite authority. This resulted in the adoption of a market-led foreign exchange rate regime. These two moves attempt to reconcile huge macro-economic imbalances, due to the overvalued currency that was further crippling the economy.
When the kwacha depreciated by around 50%, an immediate flotation of the exchange rate followed. It aimed to rein in on the huge disparities between the official and parallel forex market and to free up the forex that was being hoarded. The restrictions on forex transactions by banks and forex bureaus, an increased bank rate and a tight monetary policy helped to monitor the progress.
“Beyond the pre-economic reforms it is therefore a fact that we are still a long way off, from comprehensively dealing with the whole list. All of the challenges are structural in nature and quite huge and terminal to the economy, let alone to any efforts, in need of real and meaningful policy consistency for urgent and sustainable consolidation of the gains being realized at restructuring of the economy,” says Kubalasa.
There was support from fiscal policy side, aimed at austerity and recovery. Civil servants demanded a pay rise of more than 65%, saying that the devaluation has caused inflation, which had eroded their salaries.
“On the down side, because of import-dependence in production, production costs have gone up since the devaluation and domestic prices have followed. The cost of living has risen and this has affected all Malawi Kwacha earners and this will be the case for time, until the economy attracts sufficient investment transformation and import-substitution and export diversification,” says Kubalasa.
Banda was ranked 47th on FORBES’ ‘The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’ 2013 list and was also one of five short-listed contenders for the FORBES AFRICA Person of the Year award in 2012. She is expected to seek re-election in May.
Stakeholders expect economic progress to be mirrored in public service delivery, as well as through the lowering of commodity prices.
A source of discontent is the dislike of austerity, across the board by government. The president has been traveling extensively; most trips are not in tandem with the austerity measures.
Civil society has called for balanced programs; they want extra-budgetary funded interventions to be integrated into other already established programs.
“These include those such as the Green Belt Initiative, the One Village One Product (OVOP) [movement] that needed to be fully sustained and supported by operationalizing the National Export Strategy; if we are to sustain the promise for maximum potential gains they seem to have if properly harmonized and rationalized,” says Kubalasa.
It seems that Malawi and its first woman president have a long way to go.