Talking Blues: The folly of treating the symptoms but not the disease


“The conditions of Malawi, the poorest country in English-speaking Africa, have been gradually worsening over the last 40 years. This is in part due to global climate change, but also to too much Aid, which has been misinterpreted as development.” – Benny Dembitzer, published by The Guardian


Tropical Cyclone Freddy has left us with more than 500 people dead, another 537 or so missing, over 553,600 displaced and 13 districts’ already dilapidated infrastructure devastated.

Even before efforts to rebuild damaged infrastructure begin, immediate humanitarian needs need urgent attention.

For example, already vulnerable women, girls, and children have become even more so due to overcrowding in sites for displaced people.

Again, even before the floods, malnutrition was high in areas now impacted by Freddy. In 2023, more than 213,200 children under age 5 in Malawi were already expected to be acutely malnourished, with 62,000 severely acutely malnourished.

As happens when disaster strikes, President Lazarus Chakwera has left no stone unturned in appealing for local and international assistance.

He was on CNN’s One World with Zain Asher the other day. He also granted another exclusive to The Guardian. The Guardian has since published excerpts of the interview in an online article titled “Malawi president declares half of the country damaged by cyclone”, dated 20 March 2023.

Seemingly attributing the entire disaster to the global Climate Crisis while completely ignoring ‘pre-existing conditions’ I will discuss later, Chakwera said,

“This demonstrates that climate change issues are real, and we are standing right in the path of it.” He added that the climate crisis can potentially keep “Malawi in perpetual poverty”.

Chakwera also lamented the failure of Malawi’s early warning system, which had saved lives in some lower-lying areas but not in others. He indicated that landslides that swept Blantyre City came without any warning.

“We need everyone’s help and support for this tragedy to be mitigated,” he said. “We are suffering, and we can’t meet the needs. We have set up temporary camps, and food is needed; shelter, yes, but we must go past that and build stronger because of the damage.

“It’s not just here and there; we are at the receiving end of the worst of climate change.

“I just feel that we need to be talking about this, keeping the conversation alive. It’s not a matter of saying be charitable to your neighbour; this has to do with loss and damage and responses that are not tokenism.”

Chakwera further pointed out that three cyclones had hit Malawi within 13 months.

“We are in a perpetual cycle of trying to pull ourselves up and getting knocked back down.”

“Once the rains subside, we must help these families stand on their own two feet. We need roads, we need hospitals and schools. Otherwise, we are in big trouble. Malawian people, to their credit, are resilient people. So many of them grow up poor; it’s part of life.

“This is what we were trying to change. To give hope that Malawi can become a developed nation with industrialisation, give young people more of a future than sustenance farming, and have modern sustainable agriculture. This is the vision we wanted to be cast, a country that can stand on its own feet.”

Commenting on the British government’s slashing its contribution to the £90m Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters programme from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP, Chakwera said:

“We understand that the British government has had its own problems. But from 2015 to the moment, the help from the British government has significantly been reduced.

“We need help, significant help from everyone, but we cannot necessarily be pointing the finger at one government because we understand everybody has troubles.

“The devastation and impact of this are the worst yet we have seen – many people have told me they have never seen anything like this in their lifetime.”

The article in The Guardian has not gone unchallenged.

In a response also published by The Guardian  titled “Foreign aid is doing more harm than good in Malawi”, Benny Dembitzer points out the pertinent fact that Cyclone Freddy notwithstanding, the situation in Malawi has been “gradually worsening over the last 40 years in part due to global climate change and “too much aid which has been misinterpreted as development”.

He argues that Aid has killed local efforts and homegrown development initiatives, saying:

• in addition to Irish, German and US NGOs, Malawi has over 900 NGOs working in Malawi registered with the Charity Commission in the UK and that,

• floods and cyclones have affected the country in the last 20 years.

Therefore, nothing will change even if more voluntary agencies come to Malawi with their individual programmes. As far as he is concerned, Malawi must address fundamental infrastructural weaknesses.

He cites the rampant deforestation fuelled and aggravated by the fact that in this day and age in Malawi, trees are still the only fuel to heat homes and cook food when trees are indispensable in preventing land erosion and overflowing rivers and destruction of habitats. If the status quo vis-à-vis trees and lack thereof persists, no matter how much Aid is pumped into Malawi, not much will sustainably change.

My question is: does the ordinary Malawian need Aid to plant and leave the existing trees /forests alone? This is the first ‘pre-existing condition’.

He then touches on the UN WFP’s approach in Malawi, which he says perpetuates poverty by buying grain from the rich to give to the poor. This, he posits, has destroyed local agriculture and economic activity and contributed to poverty because, though well-meaning, the “Cobra Effect” of the WFP’s intervention undermines food sovereignty among the world’s poorest communities. If you’ve heard the adage “give a man fish and he will eat for a day…”, this makes a lot of sense. Hence, the second ‘pre-existing condition’.

The author has omitted something President Chakwera said or did not say on decreasing British Aid, and that is the third and arguably most critical ‘pre-existing condition’.

If truth be told, even before Cyclone Freddy, Malawi badly needed British Pounds, American Dollars, Europe’s Euros, etcetera. However, inflows of these were declining because of unchecked corruption.

To help us, the British tried to drive a corruption kingpin based in Britain out of business. All we needed to do was collaborate with the British National Crime Agency (NCA), ensure his conviction, and recover and repatriate what belonged to us.

However, because we want to eat our cake and have it too, instead of cooperating with the NCA, we are hellbent on abusing state resources and some unguided government officials to obstruct anyone daring to collaborate with the NCA in the fight against that “British businessman”.

Now, if we refuse to get back what is ours from someone who stole it, why should the British, the Americans and the Europeans gift us their taxpayers’ money? 

Sadly, I can’t offer any comfort to Benny Dembitzer because as long as we continue treating the symptoms and not the disease(s), I am afraid the conditions in Malawi, the poorest country in English-speaking Africa, will continue worsening.

A pity, given the potential. We deserve better!