The C-word weighed heavily on my mind this week. I have left behind the white sands and shimmering blue waters of Lake Malawi for the dusty, sticky heat of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, where I have just helped deliver a workshop for 60 new councillors.
Corruption (Malawians do not swear) was the hottest topic in our even hotter training room on Thursday, and I was not surprised. Corruption, sadly, is a fact of life in Malawi. “It is killing us,” a senior surgeon remarked during a conversation about the health service, two months ago.
“It is killing us,” the head of a Malawi think-tank told me a few days ago when we were discussing the country’s ailing economy.
“It is killing us,” a councillor said during our session on tackling the scourge.
Before you start feeling too smug about civic life in Scotland, with its strict regulatory frameworks, world-class police force and still-robust media, consider, for a moment, just one aspect of corruption, as defined by Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau.
They assert, rightly, that corruption includes “influence peddling” which “entails illicitly obtaining advantage through one’s position, relationship or standing”.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. Influence peddling, the old boy’s network, you scratch my back... these are all familiar tactics used by everyone from former pupils of Eton to members of private golf clubs.
Corruption is a fact of life in any and every society. Unfortunately, when a country is as poor as Malawi, it is even more corrosive than it is in Trump’s America or Putin’s Russia.
And in recent years, it has infected every level of Malawi society, from government ministers and senior civil servants, jailed for their part in the infamous Cashgate scandal – where at least £30 million was stolen from the government’s coffers over a six-month period – to nurses demanding a £1 bribe so a patient can skip the long queue at out-patients.
“We need to get rid of it, before it destroys us,” one of the councillors told me as we queued for our morning coffee. “It damages our reputation abroad. And it is the poorest people, the people in the villages, the people we represent, who suffer the most.”
Local government, like multi-party democracy, is new to Malawi. The first multi-party parliamentary elections were in 1994, followed six years later by a ballot for councils, where the turn-out was only 14 per cent.
Councils were suspended from 2004, with local services run by bureaucrats, before local democracy was restored in 2014. The councillors we worked with this week were mostly all elected in May this year, and all seem eager to do the best they can to develop their country. As a former councillor myself, I am a great believer in the power of local government to change lives for the good, whether in Edinburgh or Mzuzu, Malawi’s northern city.
So is Stella Mpaso, a new councillor on Ntcheu District Council. “We are here to work together to develop our nation, and our communities,” she told me, where else but in the queue for the ladies bathroom.
Stella is a member of the United Transformation Movement (UTM) party, the new kid on the political block, formed only ten months before the May election by Saulos Chilima, former chief executive of Airtel Malawi, the country’s leading telecommunications company.
Chilima came third in the Presidential elections, and the UTM only won four seats in parliament, but they represent a generational shift in Malawi’s politics. “The old men’s time is over,” an activist told me recently. “It may take us ten years, but our generation will take over, and we will develop Malawi. We have to.”
As my colleague Danny and I shouted ‘tionana’ (goodbye) to the councillors, we contemplated how we would cope as politicians in a country where the annual education budget for Ntcheu district, with a population of 660,000, is K378 million (£420,000). West Lothian’s education budget is £250 million for a population of 180,000. We decided we would struggle.
So I was not surprised when I picked up a copy of The Nation newspaper on Wednesday to read that some children were being turned away from school at the start of the term on Monday because they did not have K500 (55p) for their school development fee.
Primary education in Malawi is free, but in recent years, cash-strapped schools have introduced development fees to raise money for basic equipment, such as text books and pit latrines.
The education minister, Justin Saidi, said he was shocked to learn that children were being sent home because they could not afford to pay the fee. “Our policy is that teachers are not supposed to restrain pupils from attending classes,” he told the newspaper, adding “... this should be stopped, and the learners go back to school.”
The Nation was rather more robust. Its leader exclaimed, “The sight of poor children walking home... should depress anyone who thought free education would make every boy and girl learn in peace.
“Unfortunately, the celebrated reform (free education) has heralded overcrowded classrooms, where pupils endure a shortage of nearly everything, from skilled teachers and decent classrooms, to basic teaching and learning props... this mayhem must give way to sanity.”
Indeed. But it is a global madness that tolerates an unequal world where one year of Boris Johnson’s education at Eton cost £42,000 (at today’s prices), and a child is turned away from primary school here in Malawi because her parents, who probably earn around £150 a year, cannot afford a 55p fee.
There are times when I reflect on the political governance work that I do here, and I wonder if the grant for the programme, which is from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, could be better spent buying text books.
But then, just as we are packing up on Thursday, a familiar face appeared at the door of the hall. It was the Hon Jona Mkandawire, the newly elected MP for Rumphi West, and one of our former councillors.
“I wanted to come and say thank you,” he said. “You helped inspire me to run for parliament, and look, I won. And working with my councillor colleagues here, I am sure we can help develop our country. Good politicians are important,” he smiled.
He is right, because it will be good politicians who will grow Malawi’s economy, root out corruption and deliver free, quality education for all. Elections really do matter.