SEATTLE — Malawi’s misuse of aid is notorious. The sheer size of scandals in the country over the last few years is a testament to that. In 2011, aid to Malawi was stopped because a private jet for the president’s personal use was purchased using about £8 million of funds provided by multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.
In 2014, a scandal that came to be known as Cashgate erupted. Members of former Malawi president Joyce Banda’s cabinet had been caught misappropriating financial development funds for the sake of personal profit. The amount lost came to $45 million.
The EU and the U.S., two of the largest donors of aid to Malawi, have raised questions about Malawi’s abuse of aid. The U.K., in a sign of resilience against the 2011 incident, decided to cut aid to Malawi. The result was turmoil, as stability was held together by aid. Fuel shortages led to civil unrest, which was violently put down–an action that resulted in the U.S. pulling aid as well.
Urban areas in Malawi have been seen improvement. However, on the whole inequality in Malawi seems to be getting worse, with most of Malawi’s poverty seen in rural areas. It is easy to attribute corruption and the disparity between the rich and poor in Malawi to greed, but a more thoughtful analysis shows that aid may not necessarily go where it needs to go. In Malawi’s case, funding primarily goes to urban areas and not rural villages.
Village X Tackles Poverty in Malawi with Innovative Methods
Michael Buckler, the CEO of Village X, a nonprofit organization, talked to The Borgen Project about a new way of work around Malawi’s misuse of aid. He explained that while corruption is rampant, the solution is easy to get around. Rather than going through the government, why not go through the tribes and villages?
Based on research done by Dr. Kate Baldwin of Yale University on traditional chiefs being more accountable and more present than elected officials, Buckler set off on an experiment after quitting his job at a law firm.
“We went to… Malawi to figure out whether the model could work there or not, whether villages were interested in it or not, with outsiders coming in and crowd raising funding for their development projects and whether they were willing to provide some of their own money for the impact and how we were going to track impact,” Buckler explained. His experiment has turned into an organization that helps fund more than 30 villages, each with a population of at least 1,000 people.
By providing aid directly to villages to develop ideas selected by group consensus of the village, Village X’s impact is a more democratic way of approaching the issue of poverty. In Buckler’s eyes, the traditional NGO methods of addressing a particular issue often do not work because most NGOs fail to consider the ecosystem surrounding the issue.
“NGOs make this mistake all the time, where they go to a village and say, ‘We are not going to charge you for our services, we are going to give it to you for free and this is all we do. We focus on clean water or girls’ education or women’s empowerment,’” Buckler continued. “And they do their little intervention, [but]it’s not coordinated in a way with what the villages want or other interventions that would amplify what they were doing.”
The process of Village X’s impact is as follows: First, an impoverished village is identified through word-of-mouth or poverty maps. Then, a village meeting is called to explain the model. Next is the crux of the method: listening. A local field agent for Village X listens carefully as the problems within the village are identified by the villagers.
After a brief period to allow the village committee to put together a proposal and its monetary contribution to the project, the remaining funds are raised through partnerships with NGOs or on site. After completion, Village X monitors the success of the project and how, in its words, the project “disrupts extreme poverty.”
This process seems like it would take a long time, but a nursery school was set up in Siyabu village in six months. Saiti village took seven months to construct a borewell for clean drinking water, and Nakhwala village took only one month to increase its food production.
How Does Village X’s Impact Stack Up Against Other NGOs?
During his time as a Peace Corps teacher, Buckler witnessed firsthand the issues of government-partnered NGOs. As an example, he spoke about Plan International working with the government of Malawi to set up a girls’ school in the village he was working in at the time. The result was a cancellation of the process after two years and $60,000 lost on the project due to misappropriation of funds by the contractor, Buckler said.
Village X’s impact is so large because its model provides low cost and a high impact, which can be scaled significantly. Buckler explained, “The idea is that if you can do low-cost and high-impact projects, then you can scale. You can probably do projects in every underserved Malawian village for about $10 million, which is a drop in the bucket [and]is about 1 percent of the total aid Malawi receives.”
Buckler said that if things continue the way they are, with the rich continuing to disassociate from the rural poor, Malawi will never meet the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals–an opinion supported by the World Poverty Clock, which indicates that Malawi is already off-track in achieving its SDG targets.
With this in mind, Malawi’s elections are on the horizon. While voters rush to the booths to elect their new president and vice-president, Buckler’s hope is for a president who will disrupt the current system.
“Malawi’s VP, a relatively young guy with a legitimate corporate business background… announced that he was contesting the presidency against the sitting president. We’ve seen this before, but maybe a business guy will do things differently if elected,” Buckler said. With the possibility of a new and more transparent government in its future, Malawi can better take advantage of Village X’s impact and improve the lives of its rural population.
– Amal Goteti