Climate of Corruption

How a $50 million graft scandal is pushing Malawi even closer to environmental catastrophe.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

MANGOCHI, Malawi — The soil at the base of the Namwera Hills is an almost impossible shade of red. Studded with row after crooked row of stunted maize seedlings, the baked farmland of central Malawi stretches out for miles, broken only by palm groves and the occasional cluster of mango trees. In mid-December, more than a month into the usual rainy season, there is scarcely a cloud in the sky.

"For the last six years, the rains have come late," explained Samson Mussa, a subsistence farmer who has tended a 1.5 hectare plot here for the last 25 years. "Last year, there was a severe drought. I have nothing for food now, so I am working as a day laborer," he said through an interpreter.

Over the last half-century, the average temperature in this landlocked country of 16 million has risen by nearly a full degree Celsius — considerably outpacing the global average. At the same time, weather patterns have become more erratic, making rain-fed subsistence farming an increasingly risky enterprise, despite the fact that 85 percent of Malawians depend on it for survival. The rainy season, now shorter and less predictable, is also more extreme, with heavy precipitation, hailstorms, and flash floods often damaging what little can be grown during the abbreviated growing season.

The result, in a country where economic fortunes literally ride on the southeast trade winds, has been tremendous volatility and the return of food insecurity on a mass scale. Considered an agricultural success story in the mid-2000s, when it became a net food exporter, Malawi now must ration maize sales as it braces for the possibility of widespread hunger. The government predicts that 1.4 million people will need emergency food relief before the harvest in April. In 2012, it needed $30 million from international donors to keep at-risk citizens from starving.

But shifting weather patterns are not the only forces beyond the majority of Malawians’ control that are propelling the country toward crisis. There is also the powerful vortex of greed that has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars away from vital government programs and into the pockets of corrupt officials. Over the last decade, an estimated $550 million has disappeared from government coffers. Fifty million of that went missing under the watch of Joyce Banda, the onetime darling of the West, whose elevation to the presidency in 2012 was supposed to mark the end of all that. The kleptocratic machine, however, kept right on humming.

In a way, the latest scandal, known as "Cashgate," represents an intertwining of these two seemingly unrelated forces: corruption and climate change. International donors predictably recoiled. Britain, Norway, and the European Union, among others, are now withholding a total of $150 million in aid from the Malawian government, which relies on international largesse for 40 percent of its budget. Reduced funding will adversely affect service provision across the board — impacting everything from health care to education — but it’s especially bad news for long-term climate change adaptation. According to researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, roughly one-third of international aid to Malawi "has the potential to reduce people’s vulnerability and enhance their ability to adapt to climate change."

Despite the potential to offend donor sensibilities, Banda has so far moved aggressively to expose the rot. Since September, when the shooting of her budget director — allegedly by the country’s justice minister — blew the scandal wide open, some 100 officials and businessmen have been arrested. In an interview with a small group of foreign journalists at the presidential palace on Dec. 13, Banda pledged to continue her crusade against corruption even as the scandal threatened to engulf her. "I was warned [against tackling graft] by my colleagues across the continent," she said, because corrupt officials "will fight you back — they will drag you down and they will suck you into it. You might die there."

Cashgate could indeed kill Banda’s prospects in this May’s presidential contest, whether because she is overpowered by her corrupt opponents or because she is eventually implicated in the debacle. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the shadow of Malawi’s most remarkable corruption scandal in recent memory will linger well into the future. The last time aid was canceled, when Banda’s mercurial predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, ran afoul of international donors in 2010, the country tipped into an economic tailspin from which it has not yet fully recovered.

Not that Banda seems worried. Although less flippant than Mutharika, who infamously told donors to "go to hell," Banda has been surprisingly acerbic when it comes to Western anxiety over Cashgate. "They [donors] come and go and come and go, but we are here — we did not die," she quipped to Britain’s Telegraph in November. During the interview in December, she expressed similar frustration with Western aid agencies, implying that they often forget that "we can think and that we know what we want."

But if Banda isn’t concerned about the impact of an aid shut-off, she is in the clear minority. "This is a curse that will haunt … people for a long time," said Charles Jumbe, an associate economics professor at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who co-authored a comprehensive assessment of Malawi’s agricultural-sector policies aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. "It will incapacitate the implementation of various government programs that benefit the rural masses."

Already, the Malawian government has curbed public procurement and limited disbursements to its ministries. Gladys Gandali, a spokesperson for the minister of environment and climate change management, confirmed that the ministry’s outlays have been slashed. "Our monthly funding … has been reduced since what happened," she said, referring to Cashgate. "[It] has really affected the running of the ministry."

Two of the Malawian government’s main partners in its National Climate Change Program, Norway and Britain, have suspended aid in the wake of the Cashgate scandal. The overarching goal of the program, run by the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Management, is to formulate a framework to support government institutions as they develop long-term climate-resilience strategies. Right now, according to Jumbe, "the country has yet to develop a [an overarching] climate change policy and strategies to coordinate efforts to address climate change."

The challenge will only become more vexing with time. Rapid population growth — the country has nearly twice as many inhabitants as it did 25 years ago — and environmental degradation have conspired to make Malawi even more vulnerable to the vagaries of wind and weather. "Malawi is even more dependent on rainfall than when I left," said Alan Eastham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Malawi from 2005 to 2008. "And if it doesn’t rain, they don’t eat."

Malawi’s outlook wasn’t always so precarious. As recently as 2009, international newspapers were filled with headlines touting the country’s "maize miracle" as a model for the rest of the African continent. "Malawi Shows Obama’s Goal for African Self-Reliance Is Possible," boasted one particularly optimistic 2009 headline from Bloomberg News. After a disastrous harvest in 2005 that left 5 million people in need of emergency aid, Malawi did something that was tantamount to treason in free-market-obsessed international development circles: It started subsidizing fertilizer and drought-resistant seeds for roughly 1.6 million poor farmers. The Farm Input Subsidy Program was an overnight success, and by 2007 Malawi was exporting surplus maize to neighboring countries. In the program’s first two years, maize output more than doubled and average annual GDP growth spiked from around 2 percent to 9 percent.

"Malawi had pointed the way to a new Green Revolution for Africa," Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University who lobbied Britain and the World Bank to fund the subsidy program, would later write in the New York Times. Western aid agencies did eventually come around — roughly 10 percent of the program is now donor-funded — but there were those who doubted the sustainability of such stellar results from the beginning. As Eastham, who arrived as ambassador during the early phase of the subsidy program’s implementation, recalled, "After the fertilizer subsidy program was instituted, it rained and Bingu [wa Mutharika] said, ‘Look: It worked.’ But I would attribute it more to the rain than to the fertilizer and seed inputs."

An independent study commissioned by the United States and Britain found that there were "substantial direct benefits" from the subsidy program, but conceded that it had clearly "benefited from two good rainy seasons" in 2006 and 2007. Since then, a range of factors has contributed to the return of food insecurity. Many smallholders complain they no longer receive the seed and fertilizer vouchers to which they are entitled. Others say they must pay more than the discounted rate to corrupt Agriculture Ministry officials. The sharp devaluation of the Malawian kwacha over the last 18 months, meanwhile, has caused a spike in the price of household goods. More than anything, however, it has been the weather that has refused to cooperate.

"What good is fertilizer to me if it does not rain?" asked Chief Kwataine, one of Malawi’s traditional authorities, as we toured one of the 211 villages he oversees in central Malawi, all of which depend on small-scale agriculture. "The program is very good, but the rains were not predictable."

There are other reasons to think that subsidies alone will not solve Malawi’s food insecurity problem. For one thing, long-term fertilizer use degrades soil quality, unless it is paired with other practices, such as growing legumes, that restore organic matter. For another, a subsidy program on the scale of Malawi’s — which, in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, consumed 16 percent of the national budget — necessarily drains resources away from other projects that could reduce the country’s dependence on rain. One such project, the so-called Green Belt Initiative, which aims to irrigate 1 million additional hectares of farmland near lakes and rivers, has languished for years because of lack of funding.

But Malawi may be running out of time to adapt, even as the government remains fixated on Cashgate — a mass trial of 69 people caught up in the mega-scandal is due to open next month — and is unable to devote the necessary resources to planning for the future. The World Bank projects that in the next 30 years, rising temperatures could lead to substantial desertification in southern Africa. Across the continent, farmers could see half of their farmland disappear. Even with careful preparation, environmental shifts of this magnitude will place enormous strain on countries like Malawi. Without it, they foretell almost certain catastrophe.

"Ten, 15 years ago, it was very predictable when we would have the first rains. It was October and November. Now, we cannot predict," said Chief Kwataine. "People are coming to my house begging.… There is hunger looming around."

This reporting was made possible by the U.N. Foundation.

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