Poverty and poverty datum line analysis in Malawi

By Eddy Kalonga

People living in poverty are those who are considerably worse-off than the majority of the world population. Their level of deprivation means they are unable to access basic goods and services that are considered necessary to an acceptable standard of living. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living below the International Poverty Line (IPL). The daily per capita IPL is a global absolute minimum of US$1,90/per capita or US$9,50 for a family of five in a day as of October 2015. This means a family living below US$285 per month is considered extremely poor. The World Bank points out that more than half of the extremely poor people in the world live in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Let me humbly submit to you, fellow citizens, that my writing of this article is driven by my deep concern for the future of our country, your country, the country of our children and those who will come after them. I know that you are equally concerned and so are the millions of our people. I also know that you are prepared to unite for the salvation of our country. Our first step, therefore, is to call on all our political movements to unite so that we can restore our lost paradise. I hope that they will not fail us. Let me also assure you that we are fortified by the knowledge that no amount of force, no matter how mighty it is, can ever stop us from reclaiming what is rightfully ours: the right to happiness and prosperity. We are also strengthened by the spirit of our ancestors who tell us that “tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it”.

One of the major causes of poverty in the world is economic inequality. The economic meltdown in Malawi is helping to widen the rift between the rich who have access to foreign currency and other necessities, and the poor working class who earn most of their income in the local currency. With Malawi’s economy all but confirmed to contract by at least 6% in the year 2019, households are feeling the heat as poverty levels surge at alarming levels. Current salaries for most entry-level to supervisor or managerial-level jobs on the local market have fallen below the Poverty Datum Line (PDL). To make matters worse, unemployment levels are spiking as companies are retrenching to cut operating costs in our country.

Statistics and trends are hardly able to convey the magnitude of the current crisis in Malawi. Its economy is the fastest shrinking globally. The HIV incidence rate is one of the highest in the world and life expectancy for women is now 34 years (down from 65 years a decade ago) and the lowest in the world. In many parts of the country 50 per cent of pregnant women are having their children at home, unattended by a trained medical practitioner. Recent bouts of speculation assert that Malawi is now heading for total collapse and perhaps even conflict (Evans 2017).

Adverse climatic conditions and the persistence of HIV/AIDS can only partly explain the high levels of poverty and vulnerability. Many analysts agree that politics, poor governance and the weakening of the rule of law are major causes. Harassment by state actors, insecure land and housing tenure, and macroeconomic meltdown have impacted harshly on livelihoods. Declines in wellbeing have been compounded by declining access to increasingly fragmented local and national markets, to basic agro-inputs, and to public services of even a rudimentary standard.

It is not the purpose of this article to catalogue the frighteningly rapid decline of Malawi, nor to offer a partial and long-sighted account of the domestic politics that has contributed to the enactment and implementation of both aforementioned fiascos (although we do touch upon both below). The aim of this article is to use five contextualized life history to act as a window on current processes of impoverishment and adverse coping in three geographical spheres: peri-urban, urban and rural.

To be able to understand how the Malawian case relates to the fragile states discourse, we need to understand current definitions of fragility and associated terms. Within international development a common classification of fragile states (used for example, by DFID and OECD-DAC) is where the state cannot or will not offer basic services and functions to the majority of the population (Warrener and Loehr 2005). A related but distinct approach is that taken by Torres and Anderson (2004), who recast the notion of fragile states as difficult environments where the state is unable or unwilling to productively direct national or international resources to alleviate poverty.

Using this notion of difficult environments, DFID (2005) differentiates developing countries along two axes: (i) political will, and (ii) institutional capacity, creating a four stage typology: Good performers, Sufficient capacity and political desire to maintain relationships with development-related international actors; – Weak but willing: Limited capacity; Strong but unresponsive: Tendency towards repression; and – Weak-weak: Lack both capacity and political desire. As is described through this article, the Malawian state currently fits into the third category: strong but unresponsive.

The state cannot be seen to be failing as it is too pervasive, and in many ways has become parasitic on the populace, crushing dissent with increasingly ruthless vigor. However, Cammack et al. (2006) argue that DFID’s definition of fragility fits only one broad donor approach—that of functionality where institutional capacity and political desire to reduce poverty and limit ill-being throughout the territory can reflect a poorly articulated social contract (see Murshed 2006 for a discussion of this).

In addition, state fragility is also variously defined by donors in terms of outputs, where the state in question fosters and propagates insecurity and conflict, and relationships, where communication and collaboration with other states are fraught and tense (Cammack et al. 2006). Malawi performs inconsistently across these varied criteria of fragility. In terms of functionality, the Malawian state certainly has the institutional capacity to reduce poverty and increase wellbeing across all sections of the population, but has none of the political desire. Instead, increased repression, and politicization have been the norm since at least 1994. As for outputs, and despite fears to the contrary, it appears that Malawi has not directly exported many spillover effects thus destabilizing neighbours.

Its main export has been people, with mass emigration headed to South Africa and beyond. But what is discomforting is that there seems to be a lack of commitment by some of our country’s leading voices to tackling the serious problems facing our country. In some cases, our inertia as a nation emanates from the fear of changing our failed political system because we are either cowards or we have surrendered to the top predators of the food chain who are hell bent on plundering our country, hoping that we shall eat the crumbs that fall from their dining table. The pain is too deep in our flesh. It is over here; it is over there in you and me.

It cuts deep like a knife or a spear piercing into our heart, and it is so deep and excruciating that we cannot pretend our nation is not hurt. Therefore, in order for us to march into the future confidently, we need a healing process which deals with our turbulent past. The current battle with the street vendors who are trying to survive by selling small items on our streets is yet another pain being inflicted on an already bleeding nation. But there is an irrepressible inner voice which continues to ask: When and how are we going to put to an end all this suffering?

Amazing resilience

Yet, in spite of the pain and suffering our people are going through, one cannot fail to marvel at their indomitable spirit. They crack jokes and exude an abundant warmth and love, which you rarely find in other parts of our continent. The rank and file of our people survive, against all odds, on the scraps and crumbs the rich have discarded. They criss-cross the urban centres in order to cut some small deals and sell all sorts of merchandise to make a living.

Our taxi drivers wake up very early in the morning to drive their ramshackle vehicles and stay on until there are no more passengers to ferry. They are not even deterred by the corrupt traffic cops who demand a bribe for every flimsy traffic offence. Much more resilient are our women who stand all day long at their market stalls waiting for someone to fork out a few cents to buy their vegetables and small items. At the busy bus stops, young men work like bees, transporting the goods and luggage of travelers who want to board a bus or a mini bus to go home or find a menial job somewhere else. And in the cities, street children who are hardened by poverty guard, wash and polish the cars of the privileged from sun rise to sun set.

Those in the rural areas show an equally amazing stamina. They work tirelessly on their small pieces of land to feed their families. The searing heat does not weaken them. They tenaciously plough, weed and harvest whatever nature has decided to give them during the season. Their perspiration and salty sweat does not slow them down, but greases their determination to survive. They are driven by the wise words of our elders who say that a chicken that does not scratch the ground dies of hunger. Because of this, they work from sun rise till sun set; and the same cycle repeats itself the following day and the day after, throughout the whole year. This is the amazing spirit of our people which waits to be harnessed for the restoration of our lost paradise.

*Kalonga is a regular

contributor to The Lamp