Friday, October 20, 2006

Highway Kind

Sorry for the silence - the Ramble is travelling to Hong Kong today, for a three week holiday; the first time I've left Malawi since I got here in October '05. I'll be working for a day or two, then watching football with The Daily Hairdryer and eating my way through the outlying islands.

Brace yourselves for a culture shock post...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

“Start, you vicious bastard! Oh my God! I’m warning you…”

Well, I’m back from my travels, and in the words of Chief Bromden, it feels like I been away a long time.

But before getting on to this week’s work-related nonsense, a brief rundown of the trip: First stop was Mumbo island, to which we kayaked from Cape Maclear. Well, I say ‘we’ kayaked there, but my lovely kayak-mate suffered from a fit of motion sickness half way there, leaving me with the task of propelling her to safety. Naturally, when she recounts this story she omits this heroism and focuses on the *one* time we nearly ran aground while I was looking at the hornbills in the trees.

After a few days lazing around (and kayaking around the island), we transferred to Liwonde, the national park that long time readers will recall I visited some time ago, for another fabulous spell, complete with a warthog charging one of my companions and an elephant attempting to eat our chalet. I slept through the second of these events, an act of prodigious laziness.

Final stop was the Zomba plateau, where we trekked for seven hours, resulting in severe sunburn on the part of my companions, which, as the only one unaffected, was totally worth it for the pair of Purple-crested Turacos I spotted.

And no account of our journey could be complete without a description of the bundle of joy that was our rented 4x4. After reaching Cape Maclear, both the battery and the starter engine decided that enough was enough and spluttered their last, ensuring that every time we wanted to start the damn thing, we needed to get it towed until the engine kicked in. Hours of fun. We named it Mavuto (literally, ‘problems’) and it was put down upon our return to Lilongwe. Brutally.

* * *

After a couple of days back at work, I'm starting to get back into the swing of things. We’re just about ready to print and distribute one report we’ve been working on, the fruit of almost eight months work, from data collection to analysis to arguments over the drafting. Our other major piece of work, the all-important strategy that I so love, but which is danger of stalling will shortly get an almighty kick up the backside, with a meeting of all the most senior Government officials to make final comments on the draft scheduled for Thursday, so there’s hope it will get the Cabinet okay before the end of the year. Then the real work, implementation, will begin, but even with it in draft form, we’re still getting the first few things done, and with a bit of stability in the Ministry and hard work from both ourselves and our development partners, I’m still confident it will have a real impact on the effectiveness of Aid in Malawi.

* * *

One thing I noticed when travelling was the extent in Malawi of what is normally described as the ‘informal economy’. This is the very misleading name given to the sometimes complex and large economic relationships and activities undertaken under the radar of Government, meaning that the people working in these activities do not turn up in official statistics of employment, while the goods they produce and sell do not bolster GDP or national income statistics. I prefer calling this section of the economy ‘unenumerated’ rather than ‘informal’, shamelessly plagiarising an ex-lecturer of mine, since the activities lumped together as ‘informal’ might be as complex and profitable as anything in the ‘real’ economy.

In some parts of Southern Africa, the unenumerated economy has been estimated to be about 40% of the size of the ‘formal’ economy, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the figure was around this level in Malawi. Everywhere I went, there were people engaged in economic activities, selling or buying goods, and never appearing in the tally-books of any Government bean-counter.

Some people take this for the sign of a deceptively healthy economy – if so many people are selling things in an entrepreneurial spirit, then capitalism must be relatively healthy, right? Not so. Markets are not the same thing as capitalism. Feudal societies had markets and entrepreneurs. What makes capitalism distinct as a form of socio-economic organisation is the relationship between those who have capital and those who don’t. I could write for hours about this, but the basic point is that the use of capital to generate and appropriate additional value from fixed-price labour is at the root of the dynamic form of economic organisation that is capitalism, not the desire to sell goods and services. Confusing markets with capitalism is a common mistake among economists, and serves to mask the structural problems that need to be addressed before really dynamic growth becomes possible. The formal / informal or enumerated / non-enumerated dichotomy is one of a number of red herrings we tend to chase far too often.

* * *

I could run with the red herring theme for a while – there are lots in this field, but I’ll save others for another time.