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If you truly lead, we will support you

British High Commissioner Michael Nevin tips Malawi to graduate from aid dependency through a vision and action plan that Malawians own

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

British High Commissioner Michael Nevin
British High Commissioner Michael Nevin tips Malawi to prosper

Thank you all for coming this evening to what is the equivalent overseas of the UK’s national day. I know last year’s event, celebrating both Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the hosting of the Olympic Games, was a great success. It is a more modest affair this year but it is still special. It is certainly special for me, having listened to previous High Commissioners deliver their speeches on this occasion in this garden 10 years ago – now I have the privilege.

I do feel that this year I have an even stronger connection to this event. On 12 March, my wife and I had an audience with HM The Queen at Buckingham Palace. I can tell you that she is as inquisitive and knowledgeable as her reputation suggests. As we talked, it struck home to me that we were in the presence of not just The Queen but of great experience. Her Majesty mentioned her meetings with all the historical leaders from this region, including Kenyatta, Nyerere and Dr Banda. She asked how the “experiment” of Lilongwe was progressing — you have to remember that she visited in 1979 when Lilongwe was still establishing itself. And Her Majesty took great interest in Malawi’s economy, development and the people’s welfare. The following week, during Her Excellency President Banda’s visit to the UK, we met HRH The Duke of York (the Queen’s son), who also remembered Lilongwe on that visit, even though he was, in his own words, “still in short trousers”.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a year of great change since many of you were last in this garden. I could look back on the past year, as one of great challenge for the people of Malawi in hard economic times, although I do believe we are seeing Malawi turn the corner through improved political and economic governance, donor responses, the ingenuity of the private sector and the stoicism of Malawi’s citizens.

I could use this speech to highlight my own “return” to Malawi and the relief of many that the friendship and partnership between our two countries has been fully restored, while pointing out that, despite a difficult period, the UK did not abandon Malawi, as anyone who knows Kirk Hollingsworth and Sarah Sanyahumbi and the work of her team at DFID can attest to. Or I could focus on the substantive visit to the UK in March by Her Excellency The President which revealed so much goodwill for Malawi. In doing so, I might observe that over the past year or so there were more high-level visits both ways UK-Malawi than I experienced in Kenya.

I could recall too the bi-centenary of David Livingstone’s birth that celebrated the special links between Scotland and Malawi, and the hundreds of organisations doing good work here, along with other British NGOs big and small, while noting that next year the Commonwealth Games will be held in Glasgow and that the Queen’s Baton relay is due to be paraded and passed through Malawi on 24 January 2014.

I could look back over 2012-13 and point to the development achievements of DFID Malawi and UK Aid — £115m (MK57bn) in programme delivery, which has supported, in conjunction with others, an estimated 440,000 children to get primary education; 350,000 families to own insecticide bed nets; medical personnel able to attend to 35,000 births; 130,000 people to obtain access to clean drinking water; 530,000 Malawians to receive emergency food support; and even the introduction of Mzuzu coffee to Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s leading supermarkets.

If I wanted to, I could talk about our work to support Malawi’s development of a national security strategy, our close foreign policy, security, defence and migration relationship, our support for the media, our engagement with politicians, civil society and business, the scholarships we give to help develop leadership here, or the fact that the UK family in Malawi has become even closer with the move of the British Council Lilongwe in to the British High Commission building to continue their work on education, English language training and delivering exams. I could announce that the British Council has established 6 IT hubs in teacher development centres and schools in Malawi and that a partnership agreement has been signed with Airtel to provide internet connectivity at these hubs for three years.

But I won’t highlight all that good work! Instead, I would like to look forward to the next 12 months up to the elections and after.

Most important for Malawi at this time we believe is the continuation of a steady and consistent macro-economic policy that brings stability and confidence to Malawi’s economy. That means the continuation of the current monetary and fiscal direction, while cushioning the impact through social protection programmes. We hope the government will resist the temptation in an election year to divert from a path that has been painful, unpopular, but necessary. Credit where credit is due to the government and the Governor of the Reserve Bank for sticking with the policy direction so far. I would note that in the UK we too are following an austerity budget, as is much of Europe.

Just as importantly, we support the increased emphasis on developing the private sector and increasing mutual prosperity through more trade and investment. During the President’s visit to the UK in March, the historic and beautiful Draper’s Hall in the City of London was packed with businesses interested in Malawi’s opportunities. There is a sense of buzz about Malawi. But we need to capture it against fierce regional and international competition. We intend to help the Malawi Trade and Investment Centre bring a follow-up trade mission here. DFID too will provide more support to the private sector. This includes working with the Government to create a better enabling environment for businesses, for example by helping MITC to fulfil its mandate as a One-Stop Shop for Investors. DFID will also support businesses directly (with advice and finance) through a number of new initiatives, including a venture capital fund for SMEs, a programme to drive transformation in Malawi’s Oil Seeds sector, support to commercial banks extend their services to SMEs, and a Challenge Fund aimed at encouraging businesses to innovate.

This work will only be successful if there is more of a business-friendly culture within government and society, with policies coherently aligned to promote growth and the export strategy. Sometimes that means the Government doing less, facilitating the space for the private sector to do more. Malawi, just like the UK, will need to work hard to understand and address the needs of existing and potential business. A potential investor sitting in London, often covering all of Africa, if not beyond, has to be convinced that Malawi is offering added advantage over the competition. Malawi therefore needs to differentiate itself from the competition.

I would like at this point to thank those companies who have generously contributed to this celebration – Eastern Produce, Surestream, USI, G4S, Standard Bank and Carlsberg. This is an interesting mix of British or British-related companies who have been the backbone of Malawi’s economy or who see the potential in Malawi. There are others, such as AB Foods or British American Tobacco or Malawi Mangoes. We want to see more of them and the British High Commission is stepping up its efforts to help them enter the market, to the mutual benefit of the UK and Malawi.

All of this emphasis on trade fits with the UK’s Presidency of the G8 this year. Next week in my home place Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister will press for action to promote open economies, open Governments, and open societies around the world. We want to see fairer tax rules, more open trade and greater transparency from Governments and companies. We believe that developing countries will benefit by putting our own G8 houses in order, ensuring that the developed world fairly shares with the developing world the benefits it gets from the developing world.

Malawi is already benefiting from the G8. On 8 June in London Malawi was welcomed in to the next wave of countries joining the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that was begun under the US G8 Presidency. There is now an action plan with commitments from government, donors and the private sector that will increase agricultural production in Malawi. I know that Her Excellency The President was greatly enthused by this initiative and is determined to capitalise on it. I’d like to particularly acknowledge the work of the Ministry of Agriculture and the EU in leading the process, reflective of the strong coordination and good working relationships amongst a dedicated international community represented in Malawi.

We must now ensure follow-up and delivery. Many people can rattle off the same list of challenges that Malawi needs to fix. But we need more seriousness to actually fix them. That means making talk of irrigation and crop diversification a reality; boosting the energy infrastructure, including by agreeing proper incentives for private sector involvement; ensuring the Central Medical Supplies Trust performs much better in ensuring drug availability in the country; cutting waste in public expenditure by delivering on existing public financial management pledges, including the appointment of a new Auditor General; increasing confidence that corruption is being addressed by giving the ACB more support and taking more decisive action against those suspected of corruption, including by more forcefully implementing the laws, civil service and procurement regulations that Malawi already has (Malawi scores respectably in a Global Integrity report for its laws; but its implementation score is much poorer). It means protecting rights and freedoms, implementing the constitutional review and perhaps going further, to build stronger democratic institutions, more accountable but better supported security authorities, more transparent appointment and removal processes, all of which helps protect against executive abuse and the temptations of autocracy.

This is not about criticising or supporting one political side over another. The point is that there are green shots of optimism and determination to move Malawi on which we need to capture and nurture, particularly to avoid the country being left behind others in the region. What vision and blueprint can all stakeholders agree for Malawi over the next 25 years or so that will deliver over 6% sustainable growth to reduce poverty and position Malawi as one of the success stories of Africa, less donor dependent, and able to contribute fully to regional and international issues? 50 years after independence, and in line with the African Union’s own plan for the future, 2014 would be a symbolic time for Malawians to set a long-term agenda for Malawi. Perhaps post-election all stakeholders could come together in an indaba to agree what that plan is, own it and promote it as a national endeavour with little deviation, no matter which government is in power.

On elections, the UK’s interest in May 2014 is not who wins, but that the process has been free, fair and safe, well-run and within a sensible budget. That means freedom to campaign; freedom of the press to report, including equitable access to the national broadcaster; responsible behaviour from all parties and their supporters, including no violence, intimidation or bribery; no interference by security agencies but the provision of appropriate, proportionate and neutral security. And of course it means supporting the Malawi Electoral Commission to run a credible election that is transparent, delivered on time and within an efficient budget. The result then should be respected with all adherence to the rule of law.

The Malawi electorate must decide who is best to deliver their vision for Malawi. We hope that debate will focus on the issues, not just the personalities or rely on regional or tribal affiliations. It is up to the Malawi people to challenge the parties on these issues, and the parties to be willing to accept the challenge, being tolerant of criticism. As the British High Commission, we hope to agree with the parties a new and exciting initiative for Malawi - a version of the BBC’s Question Time - to be broadcast on local radio and television, that will put these issues to the party representatives through interactive debate.

A well run election will be important not just for Malawi’s reputation, but for SADC’s. Malawi will take over in August as the Chair of SADC. That will put Malawi at the forefront of efforts, along with regional partners, to resolve the issues that face SADC, including ensuring that political agreements are adhered to and that other elections due to be held in the region are kept to a high standard. It would be damaging if recent good progress led by SADC was to be reversed. Malawi also has an opportunity to push for stronger regional integration that would boost trade and infrastructure linkages, as part of a broader push to improve intra-Africa trade and development.

In conclusion, the past year has been one of change and uncertainty. But through it all is emerging a greater sense of purpose for Malawi. The foundations are there to push ahead, to graduate beyond boom and bust cycles. Malawi is at a cross-roads. We urge Malawi to grasp the opportunity, to break the mould and upset the usual way of doing things. Change the perceptions of Malawi from a nice, quiet place with a warm heart to a vibrant, dynamic country, with a warm heart. Take a radical look at the traditional way of doing things and instead deliver the potential that is here. Become the country that is on everyone’s lips, that grabs international attention for the right reasons. The international community is committed to Malawi and its people; but we need Malawi to graduate from aid dependency through a vision and action plan that Malawians own, which everyone understands and works to. Malawi should decide whether it wants to be at the crest of the African wave of growth and influence, through innovation and focus, acting with serious intent, devoid of the political culture that holds it back. If you truly lead, we will support you.

Published 1 January 2013