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DEVELOPMENT-MALAWI: Outlook Remains Bleak for the Poor

Pilirani Semu-Banda

BLANTYRE, Feb 21 2007 (IPS) - Grace Kafere is tired. She has been on her feet for close to five hours, bending over as she moves up and down in a forest gathering twigs and branches to sell as firewood.

The 45-year-old single mother of five children lost her job as an administrative assistant three years ago. The firm where she was working went through a restructuring process. She has been unable to secure another job since then.

To survive she has had to sell most of her household goods, including a small electrical stove, to raise money for school fees. Her eldest child is 16 years old and in secondary school.

‘‘I have sold all the valuables I have ever owned and am trying small-scale business in order to keep my children in school. I sell everything I can lay my hands on—including wood which I sell to my neighbours who are also struggling to make a living,’’ says Kafere.

She can no longer afford basic food items such as bread and sugar on a regular basis. Most times, her family only has one meal a day as opposed to the three a day which they used to have before she was declared redundant at her workplace.

Kafere and her family also had to move from the three-bedroom house she was renting in a low density area to a one-bedroom shack in the densely populated outskirts of Malawi’s commercial capital Blantyre. She shares the bedroom with her three daughters and, at night, her sons turn the living room into a bedroom.

As if their living conditions were not bad enough, the Kafere family shares an outdoor kitchen, a toilet and one bathroom with seven other families who stay in similar shacks.

Kafere’s neighbour, Jackson Malire, also decries the poor standards of living. It is becoming worse as the years go by, he says. His family of six people survives on the proceeds from his job as a night-watchman where the pay is only about 20 US dollars per month.

‘‘I had a bicycle which I bought five years but I had to sell it a year ago because I needed money to pay for hospital bills for my wife. I cannot afford to replace that bicycle. It seems life is getting tougher,’’ says Malire.

Without the bicycle he has to walk to and from his workplace which is 25 km away from where he stays.

The dismal experiences of Karefe and Malire are not confined to their neighbourhood. Most Malawians are struggling in similar ways as poverty has worsened in Malawi, according to the most recent Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Between 2005 and 2006 Malawi dropped one position from number 10 to number 11 on the list of the world’s 30 poorest countries. The country is ranked 166th out of 177 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index.

In 1997, Malawi was ranked at number 161 which means it has slipped five places in the last decade. The HDI, according to the UNDP, measures countries’ performance with regard to human development and includes the measurement of standard of living.

Over 65 percent of Malawi’s 12 million people live below the poverty line of less than 1 US dollar a day while 22 percent of the population is categorised as ultra-poor.

Some of the more distressing indicators include a maternal mortality rate which is over 1,100 per 100,000 live births and the deterioration of child mortality rates and access to sanitation and clean water.

A poverty and vulnerability assessment on Malawi released last year by the Malawi government and the World Bank also shows that people’s standard of living has not improved in the last 10 years. The assessment report shows that there has been little or no progress in reducing poverty and inequality.

Over a third of Malawi’s population does not have access to safe water. As a result people are ill or dying from diarrhoea, cholera and other water-borne diseases. HIV/AIDS is also among the major challenges that the country is facing as one in every 10 people is infected.

At an average of 39 years, Malawi has one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world, UNDP resident representative Michael Keating points out. The crises in livelihoods are derailing the country’s progress towards achieving the first UN Millennium Development Goal.

MDG 1 requires that countries halve the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day and also halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015.

While acknowledging that the country is failing to achieve prosperity, government officials contend that Malawi is better off in other areas than other African countries. These include the immunization of children against measles and tuberculosis and primary school enrolment.

The Malawian government is positive that the economy will improve since the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cancelled most of Malawi’s external debt of about 2.97 billion US dollars in September 2006. The country had completed economic reforms in adherence with these institutions’ conditionalities.

Malawians are also placing their hope in a promise by the country’s main donor, the British government. The British pledged 560 million US dollars in aid to Malawi over four years.

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