Leaders From the Field:Challenges in Malawi Underscore Need for Education

By Skyler Badenoch, Director of Development – East Coast

The people of Malawi are facing economically challenging and politically turbulent times. During my most recent trip to the country for buildOn, I witnessed the daily struggle that was taking place. I left most concerned about the potential for conditions to deteriorate further.

Economically, Malawians are facing three main interrelated challenges. The first is that the heavily relied upon tobacco industry has seen close to a 50% reduction in revenues this year, and everyone from the rural tobacco farmer to the large exporter is feeling the pain. One scary consequence of the reduction in tobacco revenues is that rural (mostly subsistence) farmers are selling their corn harvest to make up for their shortfall in cash, causing much anxiety about their food security in the immediate future.

Second, the Malawi government has a shortage of the foreign currency they use to purchase fuel, which has led to acute fuel shortages throughout the country. In Kasungu, the district where buildOn works, fueling stations went weeks without supply, forcing people to purchase gas on the black market for as much as $13 per gallon! For people living in bigger cities like Lilongwe and Blantyre, fuel queues stretched for blocks and required wait times of up to fifteen hours and more.

Lastly, the price of goods in Malawi has increased significantly due to both the imminent devaluation of Malawi’s currency and rising fuel prices. A bag of cement in Malawi costs an astounding $23 per bag (it only costs $8 per bag in the United States). Meanwhile, the cost of food items such as cornmeal, sugar, flour and cooking oil have all gone up.

Politically, Malawi faces an uncertain and increasingly unstable future. Dating back to April of 2011, the current administration has been at odds with the international donor community, resulting in the expulsion on high-level diplomats from Malawi, and the suspension of foreign aid to Malawi by important bi-lateral donors. As a result, the Malawian government is faced with finding a way to make up for a 40% revenue shortfall that used to come from international donors.

All of these factors culminated in July when Malawian civil society leaders tried to stage a non-violent protest against the current administration’s intolerance to outside criticism, and its failure to handle the economic problems. The protest quickly turned into riots putting the police and national military against the protestors.

Cooler heads prevailed in August of this year, and things seem to be calming down a bit. There is, however, no question that the conditions are unacceptable for many Malawians. As is almost always the case, people living below the poverty line in Malawi are impacted most by these difficult economic and political times.

The conditions that I saw in Malawi during my last trip underscore the importance of buildOn’s work in the country. Education and literacy continue to be the backbone of development, and in a time when many large donor agencies are reluctant to fund the government’s budget, the most rural and isolated communities will be in even more in need of the type of partnership that buildOn provides.