Growing up in the remote village of Maitengwe in Botswana, I never imagined I would one day lead critical multilateral conversations on global ... development, in a world struck by a pandemic, a worsening climate crisis and mired in recurrent conflicts.
Africa is growing more democratic. Earlier this year, Africans all across our continent rejoiced as the result for the general election in Zambia was declared – a win for Hakainde Hichilema, by a historic margin – and with it a change of government.
It was not just that the incumbent graciously conceded, but that the outcome itself was a case of Zambians expressing their will and desire for the country in a way that transcended geographic and ethnic lines.
This was not an isolated incident for our region. Only a year before, another, more extreme version of these events had taken place in my home country of Malawi. An incumbent government, riddled with clientelism, had attempted one last steal – this time of an election – and of course the voters found this unacceptable. Malawi’s courts overturned the fraudulent result and the voters completed the job in the election re-run.
Democracy without change
In both Malawi and Zambia, multi-party elections have been the norm for a generation now – part of the same winds of change that blew away one-party rule away from eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America in the early 1990s. However, that shift alone was never sufficient to transform governance, or society. We must not mislead ourselves that the right to vote was all people wanted. What they desired, and still desire, is a better life – and they protested for democracy with certain knowledge that this was the route to achieving it.
Yet, democracy is greater than the sum of its parts – and the right to cast a ballot is only one of them. Equally vital is rule of law, protected and dispensed by an independent judiciary. Critical to both is for electors to see the party and principal they elected implement the agenda they voted for. Elections featuring multiple contestants and increasingly-consistent party structures are a crucial staging post to democratically-controlled governance that delivers – but they are not the endgame of democratic development.
Unfortunately, for too much of the last 30 years, Malawians have been fed the ‘fruits’ of democracy without change. No matter how many elections or concoctions of parties are presented to the electorate, it has been a bitter harvest. This cannot go on. If governments raised to office through democratic means do not deliver, then why would people wish to uphold democracy at all?
Accordingly, I have recently set up a new body in my office at the very seat of government. The Presidential Delivery Unit (PDU) is a critical step in driving change through government.
This small, handpicked team from across the civil service is already focussing on delivering my administration’s core priorities – and using relationships across government, as well as the political authority of State House, to manage their implementation. Through gathering and analysing a stream of performance data, and conducting regular stock-takes with implementing ministries, departments, and agencies, the PDU is identifying which priorities are off-track or delayed and why.
By pinpointing issues and bottlenecks, it will subsequently bring resources to support those necessary arms of government to unblock obstacles, using my executive prerogative as head of state and government to drive through change.
Where there is bad governance, elections may bring deliverance, but what Africa needs beyond that is good governance focused on delivery.
I fully expect this to amount to nothing short of a delivery revolution for Malawi, not least as the PDU is not some ephemeral concept – but a tried and tested method of administrative change-making, which is already in operation in 30 other governments of the world.
My first priority for our Delivery Unit is to accelerate the development of the agribusiness sector – building upon Malawi’s agricultural economy. As with all methods of rapid development, there will be those whose cosy roles in government administration will feel pressured by the creation of the PDU. This is not to suggest there are not many talented civil servants across ministries and within government agencies.
‘They demand action’
However, we must be honest with ourselves and realise that when successive leaders have used public appointments as a means of patronage, then the effectiveness of those with talent is necessarily curtailed. Because of this, when Malawi’s political elites have put forward policy priorities, the implementation of them has been lethargic at best.
As we can see from recent elections where ballots were cast in favour of policy priorities, upending previous patterns of voting along geographical and ethnic lines, the voters are already ahead of us politicians. Put simply, they demand action. More than that, they demand results. Should that not be delivered, we will rue the day we did not try. There are other examples of governance across the world where citizens’ economic advancement has been made without democracy.
Choosing a government via elections is not enough. Where there is bad governance, elections may bring deliverance, but what Africa needs beyond that is good governance focused on delivery.
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