How to Get Your Country off the Sh*t List

An open letter to the leaders of Eritrea, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Sudan, Pakistan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and other countries too numerous to list here.

Oli Scarff/GettyImages
Oli Scarff/GettyImages

Dear Sirs (and you are all men, so I am safe in that generalization) —

All of your countries remain, to greater and lesser degrees, targets of international opprobrium. The reasons are largely predictable: corruption, repression, the usual extravagant mismanagement. Many of you have tried entirely predictable tactics to improve your standing: hiring small armies of expensive K Street lobbyists and paying for splashy 10-page advertising sections about your countries in Western newsweeklies. None of it has made much of a difference. The aid dollars are starting to dry up, or have already done so, and it is getting hard and harder to use the global war on terror to justify your stranglehold on power.

What to do? Well, there is a useful alternative if you truly wish to get your country off the international shit list. I present President Joyce Banda of Malawi, who has almost completely reversed her country’s international image in the three short months she has been in power.

You may remember her predecessor, President Bingu wa Mutharika, whose style resembled many of your own. Once heralded as a reform-minded former World Bank technocrat, Mutharika degenerated as his behavior became more and more erratic and autocratic. In 2005, he abandoned the $100 million presidential palace in Lilongwe — not because he was embarrassed by living in such outrageous opulence in a country where 90 percent of the population toil in poverty, but because he declared the residence to be haunted by phantom rodents that he could feel but not see. He subsequently purchased a 58-room mansion in his home district and put his wife on the payroll. Mutharika also purchased a $14 million private Dassault Falcon 900EX jet in 2009 along with a fleet of 60 Mercedes limousines. Trying to contain public outrage over the purchase of the jet and its $340,000 in annual operating costs, Mutharika insisted, "The jet is that I purchased is not mine. It belongs to the nation. It will be used by 10, 11 other people coming after me. So that’s an asset."

Along with the high living, Mutharika grew increasingly intolerant of dissent. He accused opposition protestors of being "led by Satan" and warned darkly of foreign agents trying to subvert his rule. He expelled the British ambassador and told international donors to "go to hell." Freedom House warned that Malawi was spiraling downward "due to the government’s violent suppression of public protests, intimidation of journalists, and threats to academic freedom." The result: The IMF suspended loans in 2011 in large part due a dispute over Mutharika’s handling of the currency; British aid was halted; and the Millennium Challenge Corporation put its $350 million compact with Malawi on hold because of actions "inconsistent with the democratic governance criteria that MCC uses to select its compact partners."

In April, when Mutharika was felled by a heart attack (which he might have survived had the Ministry of Health been better stocked with medicines that were largely absent because of the currency crunch), his vice president, Joyce Banda, came to power.

Banda is an atypical African president. Not only is she a woman, she had a degree in early childhood education and ran a series of small businesses and NGOs before she got into politics. When Banda came to power, Malawi’s former first lady, Callista Mutharika, was not amused. "She will never be president. How can a mandasi seller be president?" said Mrs. Mutharikain. (Mandasi are Malawi’s version of fritters.) Banda reacted with aplomb: "Yes, she’s right, I’m indeed a mandasi seller, and I’m proud of it because the majority of women in Malawi are like us, mandasi sellers," she retorted.

What makes Banda such an important model for all of you is not her background, though, but the steps she has taken since being sworn in as president.

Declaring, "I’m already used to hitchhiking," Banda announced her plans to sell or lease the Dassault Falcon jet bought by her predecessor. "Why did we have this in the first place?" she wondered, as she demurred that she preferred to fly coach. Similarly, Banda declared that she would sell off the pool of 60 government-owned Mercedes. She fired the powerful police chief implicated in shooting 20 democracy protestors to death the year before, launched an investigation into the death of a prominent student activist, and devalued the currency by 40 percent — long a demand of international lenders. Banda worked with parliament to rescinded draconian laws that made it illegal to be homosexual, pragmatically citing the importance of "our traditional development partners who were uncomfortable with our bad laws." With Malawi slated to host an Africa Union Summit in July, Banda made clear that Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir — wanted on genocide charges in The Hague — was not welcome. Tone-deaf African Union officials sniffed that Banda could not "dictate who could attend the summit." Banda suggested in reply that the AU could take its ball and go home. She noted that Malawi had commitments to other international institutions beyond the AU, and it did not need to host the summit, which will now be held in Ethiopia.

In June, Banda visited Washington, winning over officials and observers in the process. I watched her speak at a small gathering of powerful Washington women insiders, all of whom seemed genuinely affected when the president described how most women in her country have to take candles to the hospital when they deliver children because of the frequent power outages. She hammered home several basic points: She was committed to fighting corruption; Malawi needed to invest more in its women and children; and it was the people and their elected officials, not just her, that had to guide the country toward a better future.

Just like that, the IMF restored a $157 million loan, the $350 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact was reinstated, and other U.S. and British aid flows resumed.

Who knows how this plays out in the long run? It is important to remember that Mutharika launched promising reforms and had good relations with donors before he succumbed to advancing megalomania. Plenty of presidents start strong and then succumb to the usual temptations of power. Banda still has enormous challenges in front of her, and she’ll need to match her savvy flair for public relations with sound day-to-day managerial and political skills. She will also need to tread carefully to ensure that her early efforts to curry favor with international donors do not trigger a nationalist backlash over the long haul. But for now, one of Banda’s biggest challenges is coordinating all the people and organizations that suddenly want to help her country. There is a lasting lesson there for all of you, or at least any of you willing to make a change.

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