Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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President Joyce Banda and Malawi’s Economic Development

by Isobel Coleman
June 14, 2012

People on a highway that links Malawi to Zambia on April 21, 2008 (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters). People on a highway that links Malawi to Zambia on April 21, 2008 (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters).


Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new president, is off to a great start. I cheered when she assumed the top job in early April after her predecessor, President Bingu wa Mutharika, unfortunately dropped dead from a heart attack. Banda had been expelled from Mutharika’s party in 2010 after clashing with him over his efforts to position his brother as his political heir, but she stayed on as vice president. Some of Mutharika’s loyalists tried to block her from taking office on the weak grounds that she wasn’t a party member, but she (and importantly, the army) held firm. As she told an audience on Tuesday in Washington (speaking at the USAID Frontiers in Development conference): “I just had to get out of bed at 6am and take the job.” Banda became Africa’s second female head of state, following in the footsteps of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom she credits with making her life so much easier since today “people don’t doubt women’s leadership.”

In so many ways, Banda’s no-nonsense style is a breath of fresh air. In her short ten weeks on the job, she has managed to hit all the right notes and send every signal that she is serious about reform. She stresses that she has two clear goals: to enhance democracy in the country and to put Malawi back on the path of strong economic growth. So far, she has made progress on both fronts. She quickly cleaned house, firing the powerful police chief who has been blamed for the deaths of anti-government protestors last summer, and also several other Mutharika cronies; she launched an investigation into the murky 2011 death of student-activist Robert Chasowa; she has opened up the state media to cover opposition figures; and she has spoken out strongly in support of human rights. She refused to allow Sudan’s President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, into Malawi to attend the African Union Conference (the conference has since been moved elsewhere) and she has promised to get rid of Malawi’s anti-gay laws.

On the economic front, she has worked hard to patch up relations with donors. During his second term, President Mutharika became increasingly autocratic and belligerent with the donor community–a risky strategy when foreign assistance accounted for some 20 percent of the country’s GDP. The UK last year ceased direct budgetary support to Malawi and the IMF froze its loans. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) also suspended its program. Now, the IMF has resumed lending and Great Britain is considering doing the same. The MCC office in Malawi recently reopened and Banda says she is very hopeful that its compact will be reinstated when the MCC board meets later this month. Banda has also devalued the currency and raised interest rates and energy prices significantly.

Banda promises a combination of austerity cuts (in a much appreciated move, she is selling the $13 million presidential jet, asking “Why did we have it in the first place?” and working on reducing the presidential motorcade) and social investments. She has launched a Presidential Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood and is focused on several educational and economic empowerment opportunities for women. She is committed to improving agricultural productivity, increasing exports, and reducing the crushing poverty of her country where more than half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

In her USAID speech, Banda said that “the best dreams that come true are the ones in color” and noted that she dreams in color. She dreams of seeing all of Malawi’s girls and boys in school, getting a quality education; she dreams of her countrymen having access to electricity all day long, and clean water; and that opposition figures are respected; and–her “wildest” dream–that kids in Malawi will someday be playing on computers. These dreams, she says, are no crazier than thinking ten weeks ago that today she would be now be president.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Martin Chibanda

    This should be encouraged – may her resolve continue . Malawi like other countries in Africa has been a by-word for poverty & underdevelopment. This need not continue. National Leaders need to be more liberal & accountable & must recognize that the modern duty of “national” leaders is not only national but continental, not only continental but global. We are all each other’s keeper & sometimes it takes a woman to do that!

  • Posted by Clement GAVI

    ‘Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new president, is off to a great start.’

    This woman and President of Malawi shows in my view a great leadership character to the extent that she choose to respect the international intitutions and the signature of her country which participated to the establishment of the ICC (International Criminal Court) even if this choice means the lost of an opportunity for Malawi to welcome the annual meeting of the African Union.

    What is interesting is the reaction of the President of the Commission of Africa Union, M Jean Ping who instead of seeing through the choice made by President Joyce Banda a kind of positive signal to the continent where there is clear need of taking into account the rules, the conventions, etc African countries signs he was seeing the obedience of the President to the will of the Western World that’s why she refused to welcome President Omar El Bechir of Sudan who was condemned by the ICC.

    We know how the absence of respect of constitutons is at the root of most of crisis in Africa with their consequences on the development of this continent. Therefore President Joyce Banda is in my view on the right path to lead her country toward a good horizon if she keep this attitude, in other words if she conserve hersef and not be overflow by the power.

    Clement GAVI

  • Posted by Caleb Ng'ombo

    Her Execellency, Mrs. Joyce Banda is a true inspiration not only to myriad Malawian women and girls but also men. She is a true Malawian woman who started her life from very humble beggining to stardom. A selfless woman who has rifted hundreds of thousand women from inexplicable endemic poverty to a life of self dependency. She inspires me. She is a role model for many. She is a beacon of hope for Malawian girls, the very people organizations like People Serving Girls At Risk exist to empower. Her ascendancy to the office of the president carries with it countless dreams of ordinary girls. So far, her policies and decisions are plausible and I do hope she continues without looking back.

  • Posted by adam darlington

    mrs joyce banda i pray may the good lord give u the strength and wisdom to rule your people when i saw you yesterday at the summit of the first lady of nigerian you so very nize may God see you true.

  • Posted by Chris

    I am disappointed in her lack of resolve. A hard issue should not be ducted, skipped, or “kicked down the road”, simply because it is difficult.

    Malawi President Joyce Banda has backed away from a pledge to decriminalize being gay in the African nation.

    If she pledged, pre becoming president – did she not know then it would be a challenge? Shame on her, for not protecting those who needed her most.

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