Sunday, January 29, 2012

My one Week in Malawi - Part 1: Reflections on the forex crisis

I spent the week beginning January 15th to January 21st in Malawi. It is always great to land in Malawi in the middle of the rainy season. The country is green and at its most beautiful.

The beauty of the country at this time of the year notwithstanding, one cannot escape the severe economic crisis afflicting the country.
What is the Dollar worth in Malawi Kwacha: MK165 or MK270?
There was no one exchanging their foreign currency for the Malawi Kwacha at the many banks at Kamuzu International airport. While the banks were offering K161 for every US$1, I was told I would get almost K100 more per Dollar from the informal  forex dealers that hang outside many of the shopping malls around town. So I followed suit and shunned the formal banking system and later changed the few Dollars in my pocket at a rate of MK265/US$1 in Lilongwe old-town .
The Malawi government faces a big decision on revamping its antiquated forex exchange policy. Clearly, the fixed exchange rate policy is not working as it is failing to keep pace with unfolding developments. At the official rate of $1=MK165, the Malawi Kwacha is grossly overvalued. This is causing a lot of hurt to the formal banking sector, and, by extension, businesses and individuals  that cannot transact on the parallel market. The crippling fuel shortages are meanwhile one of the most visible manifestations of the consequences of this failed forex policy (the fuel shortages are a blog piece for another day!)
While a major devaluation of the Kwacha, as demanded by the IMF and most local economists might help to ease the forex shortages, I must say I am no longer convinced this will be a sufficient response. While the IMF is reported to have been recommending an exchange rate of between MK230-250 to the Dollar, these would still be below the rates currently being offered  on the parallel market. It is thus doubtful any devaluation  to the levels being recommended by the IMF would encourage more people to transact on the formal foreign currency market. Indeed, as my friend Joseph Chunga  at Chancellor College told me during the week, chances are high that even if the devaluation matched the current rates on the parallel market, the informal forex dealers would most likely respond by adjusting their rates upwards, thus neutralizing any potential benefits from the devaluation.
In my considered opinion, the only solution lies in a major policy shift towards a full liberalization of the Kwacha. This would free the banks to match the parallel market and thus make them competitive again in the forex market.
Many, including President Bingu wa Mutharika will argue that a wholesale liberalization of the currency market will lead to skyrocketing of prices for commodities. And they will be right. However, what should also not be overlooked is that under the current set-up, prices are already going up while many commodities are becoming scarce and unavailable. In my one week stay, I experienced first hand shortages of sugar, soft drinks, some brands of soap, and of course, fuel. The forex squeeze, in other words, is creating a disequilibrium in the market, whereby demand for goods is exceeding supply, resulting in shortages and price increases. Again, the fuel market offers a clear example of this imbalance. While the official price of petrol is K390 per litre, the price the parallel market price was fluctuating between K600 and K1,500 per litre during the week.
Of course liberalizing the Kwacha is no sure guarantee that forex will become available overnight. Indeed, a currency devaluation or  liberalization without any immediate infusion of foreign currency will most likely make the situation even worse than it already is. But not devaluing is no option either and it has become inevitable. At least, devaluation will encourage many Malawians in the diaspora to start transacting in the formal sector again, generating forex for local Malawian business. The dormant Malawi businesses might also rise again from their forex-shortage  induced comas and begin to generate some forex through exports. Above all, a devaluation of the Kwacha will most likely lead to the restoration of the suspended programme with the IMF, thus clearing the way for foreign donors to restore the suspended budgetary support to Malawi.
Will this happen? I have my doubts. Mutharika has been adamant in his resistance to devaluation. I do not see him becoming  open to a full-fledged liberalization of the currency market. My best guess will be that the Malawi government will eventually be forced to opt for another small devaluation in the short to medium term. However, such piecemeal devaluation will not offer a solution to the current economic crisis. Malawi's dire economic situation requires serious shock therapy, and only a serious devaluation that at least matches the parallel market exchange rates will do. The alternative is catastrophic to imagine.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Saying no to mediocrity: refusing to accept ‘bicycle ambulances’

A story in the local Malawi media a few weeks back about the donation of 'bicycle ambulances' in Salima district got me thinking about how as a country we have come to accept and embrace mediocrity.

I must confess to being troubled by the increasing frequency of the donation of bicycles to be used as ambulances. In the 21st century, it is both sad and shocking that any people should be using bicycles as ambulances. By definition, ambulances are supposed to provide primary care and quick transport to hospitals to those in need of urgent medical care. They are supposed to have life-saving equipment on board, managed by trained para-medics that provide a first line of medical assistance before one can be transported to be seen by a medical professional.

The idea of a 'bicycle ambulance', on the other hand, reduces the function of an ambulance service to mere transport for patients, albeit one without the requisite speed or comfort. Granted, ambulances in Malawi are very rarely used to provide urgent access to hospitals, with the possible exception of road accident victims.

Indeed, the definition of an ambulance in Malawi appears to be reduced to simply a vehicle that has a thick red cross painted on the sides. There are no phone numbers that people in need of urgent medical care can call to request an ambulance. Like their bicycle cousins, ambulances are simply a means of transport to or from a hospital. Most lack basic life-saving equipment on board. And off course there are no paramedics on board Malawi's ambulances.

More often than not, people only see ambulances in villages when they come to deliver dead bodies – a role that is meant for hearses, not ambulances. Many a time, ambulances are used to carry fee-paying passengers, even when they have patients or dead bodies on board, with the money going into the pockets of the drivers.

For a people that have no reliable access to ambulances or other means of transport to take patients to hospital, perhaps there is something to celebrate in receiving a bicycle ambulance. Indeed, in this day and age when fuel has become such a scarce commodity, perhaps bicycle ambulances are the way to go.

However, I still fail to see anything worth celebrating about the increasing trends of 'bicycle ambulance' donations. Several of Malawi's NGOs seem to have carved a niche in soliciting and handing out these foot-propelled 'ambulances'. If anyone outside Malawi wants to help the country, they should be told in no uncertain terms that Malawians need and deserve real ambulances. Bicycle ambulances do not belong to the 21st century, in Malawi or anywhere for that matter. It is as simple as that. Even an ox-drawn cart can make a better hospital ride than a bicycle in my view.

That we celebrate these donations and make them to be such big events as happened in the Salima episode reflects sadly on our own acceptance of mediocrity. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. It all starts with our acceptance of mediocre leadership, which trickles down to many other areas, including poor quality buildings, poor roads, poor services to mention but a few.