“Fulfil your pledge,” he told rich industrialised countries, referring to the $100 biillon a year promised to developing countries last year to cope with climate change, but yet to fully materialise.
He went on, “Mind you, this is not a donation. This is a cleaning fee, because if you pollute the planet we all call home, it is only right that you should pay to clean it up. So fulfil your pledge.”
He repeated his blunt message on Thursday, sitting in Edinburgh City Chambers, where he gave an interview to three women journalists, including me. He was the guest of honour at a reception hosted by the Scotland Malawi Partnership, one of his last engagements before heading home to Malawi.
He had come to Scotland to attend the COP26 climate state, not just as the head of state of a country whose southern region in particular has been devastated by climate change, but as the official representative of the world’s least developed countries – 46 at the last count – and as the current chair of the Southern African Development Community. He speaks for one billion people.
“The least developed nations, they are at the receiving end of most of the climate change catastrophes. But they have contributed the least in terms of carbon emissions,” he told us. “So what developed nations need to do is to own up and say, ‘We recognise the problem. Here is monies that we promised to clean up your environment.’
“That’s why I call it a clean-up fee. It's not a donation that somebody needs to plead for, it is to clean up our Earth. Our home.”
And he spoke for Malawi’s 20 million population when he expressed his shock at the UK government’s recent decision to cut its bilateral development funding by half, to around £25 million a year.
“I understand this is part of the whole problem that the UK government is facing,” he said, with grace. “And it's not just Malawi that is affected… It was a big… I don't want to use the word slap in the face, but it was a big shock,” he finished diplomatically.
Unicef was more blunt. In a statement to Malawi newspaper the Nation on Sunday, the children’s agency said the cuts “will have serious consequences for the most vulnerable children… It is too soon to know the full impact that UK funding cuts will have on Unicef programmes, but early indications paint an alarming picture”.
The agency’s work in Malawi saves lives. It has helped reduce infant mortality rates from 232 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 63 today. Since 2000, mother-to-child transmission of HIV has been cut by a startling 84 per cent, while 88 per cent of children are enrolled in school, one of the highest rates in the region.
But children and mothers are now at risk of dying because Prime Minister Boris Johnson needed a sacrificial lamb to prove his government’s fiscal prudence. When he defended the cuts to foreign aid which saw the UK’s commitment drop from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent for at least three years, Johnson said the government had spent £407 billion during the pandemic and that “there must inevitably be consequences”.
Those consequences are likely to be dead children, but it seems the Prime Minister can live with that on his conscience, just as the world’s rich industrialised countries seem content to watch Africa burn as a result of our pollution.
Before President Chakwera came to Britain, he received a donation of 12 metric tonnes of maize from a farmer’s co-operative in the Dowa district of Malawi. The subsistence farmers offered the grain to feed families in the south of the country whose crops had failed because of drought brought on by climate change.
The 71 members of the Mdapepuka Farmers’ Cooperative are not rich people. They grow enough maize to feed their families, with any surplus sold off to pay for essentials like school fees. Most of them don’t have electricity in their homes, or running water. They can ill afford to give away 12 tonnes of maize, but they could not stand by and watch their fellow Malawians starve, so they shared what little surplus they had.
Malawi’s under-developed economy is a result of 70 years of colonial rule by Britain, which saw the country’s natural resources exploited by white settlers, with most of its large rural population denied a proper education for generations.
Since independence in 1961, the small land-locked country has struggled to compete in a cut-throat global economy, with its main cash crop – tobacco – no longer desirable on international markets.
Climate change, caused not by villagers in Malawi using charcoal to cook their one hot meal of the day, but by industrialised countries’ dependence on fossil fuels, threatens to overwhelm the south of the country, making parts of it almost uninhabitable.
And wealthy countries chose to hoard Covid vaccines instead of sending them to Africa as originally promised. The continent faces a shortfall of 470 million vaccines this year alone, while I am about to get my third vaccine since March.
The farmers of Dowa understand that they will not prosper while half their fellow Malawians starve. So why do rich countries find it so difficult to share their considerable resources with the rest of the world? Spending money in Malawi, whether it is on social development, climate adaptation or vaccines, is not charity, it’s an investment in our future.
President Chakwera did not come to Scotland on behalf of Malawi and the world’s least developed countries to beg for handouts. He came to argue for justice. But will he, and the one billion people he speaks for, get it before it’s too late for all of us?