GRASSROOTS MALAWI is an initiative launched by a group of Malawians and non-Malawians to examine why there has been so little progress in the economic and social development of the rural areas of Malawi, where the vast majority of the population lives. The group is trying to identify what can work and how to reach agricultural projects initiated by local people as well as local or foreign Civil Society Organisations. It wishes to create better links and communication between them with a view to support one another, as opposed to competing perennially for funds and support. Ideally, development hubs will emerge to achieve cohesive transformation from aid to local empowerment and development.
Over the last 60 years or so, since achieving independence in 1964, it is estimated that Malawi has received more than the equivalent of $1 billion per year in 'aid'. Yet, Malawi is still the poorest English-speaking country in Africa. Poverty is as bad if not worse than in the past. In the rural areas, where the vast majority live (probably around 85% of the total) people are certainly getting poorer by the day. Yet, the World Bank, several UN agencies, the EU, the UK, USAID and other official bodies are all donors and present in Malawi. There are, in addition, around 25 major international non-governmental organisations, including CARE international, WorldVision, the Mercy Corps, International Red Cross, OXFAM and more than 900 smaller bodies from the UK alone, all registered with the UK official Charity Commission. There are many other projects not only from the UK, but from the US, Germany, Ireland. The situation is not unique to Malawi. It is unfortunately common across sub-Saharan Africa.
So, what has gone wrong?
Clearly there is no simple answer. Everyone wants to save Malawi. Everyone is also falling over one another to do so.
We know some of the serious challenges facing the poorest, overwhelmingly smallholder farmers, in Malawi - changing climate, decrease in the level of rainfall, increasing aridity of the soil, deforestation, low level of education among the farmers, poor tools, lack of energy for lighting, milling or storage of produce.The donor community knows what they are, but seem unable to address them. There is a great deal of contradiction, religious competition, posturing, and vanity between the donors. In the process, the intended recipients, the people at the bottom of the chain, the smallholders, are forgotten. They very seldom are part of the decisions that affect their lives, and ultimately, their deaths.
A group of us, many with long experience of Malawi, both Malawians themselves and non-Malawians, have become increasingly aware of this fundamental problem - more aid, more donors, less development. We have also become more aware of the fundamental misunderstanding in the mind of the general public that aid equals development. It does not. Too many appeals for aid are just short term donations.
Rather than starting another organisation of saviours, after a few years of giving small grants to small projects that have come to our notice, we decided to set up a discussion forum. It has already been going for some time, but we have now decided to open it up to anyone who might have a contribution to make. Comments and suggestions of any type (but not appeals for funds which will automatically be rejected) can be made directly or anonymously, by writing to me. We need an in-depth discussion of what may work and what might not. It is open to anyone who has the interest of Malawi to heart. We are honoured that Lady Justice Es Chombo, President of the Criminal Court of Malawi, is the Hon. President of the Forum and Ms Es Devlin, a well-known British artist and generous donor to Malawi is Hon. co-President.
After a period of consultation, we plan to publish a summary and recommendations culled from the different respondents. It will be in the form of a Charter which will set out what is required to transform the aid programme to Malawi into a tool for positive and sustainable development. In the process, we aim to involve the people who ordinarily would be ignored in the decision-making process. They include farmers' cooperatives, women's groups, savings and credit groups, small farmers' local organisations and local civil society groups. We plan to share the Charter with everyone involved in the development community, from international organisations to the smallest NGO. Our explicit intent is to present a coherent and practical case for change that will reflect our belief that any reform must involve those for whom aid is targeted. If the findings justify it, we might start a new organisation. More likely, we will try to be catalysts for existing organisations and support them with finance or otherwise, to improve with their effectiveness to support the lowest possible stages of development, at the very grassroots.