Malawi's real challenges dwarf Madonna media circus, says aid agency

By agency reporter
May 20, 2009

While Madonna's controversial adoption attempts have put the small land-locked African nation in the spotlight of global media, the struggles of ordinary Malawians for economic survival have received much less attention, says the development agency War on Want.

While Malawians were going to the polls this week, street vendors were faced with the dilemma of whether to take seriously the promises made by opposition politicians.

Malawi's current government, led by president Binga wa Mutharika who came into power in 2004, has been praised for increasing economic growth to nine per cent and improving food security through the introduction of a fertiliser subsidy.

However, millions of Malawians continue to live in poverty, often surviving as street vendors in the country's informal economy.

As a result of trade liberalisation introduced in the 1990s, many Malawians lost their job as factories producing textiles, garments, soaps, detergents and oils were closed down because they could not compete with foreign imports. Currently, only an estimated 12 per cent of Malawi's labour force is employed in the formal sector.

Mutharika's government became well known for its tough stance against street vendors. In April 2006, the government imposed a deadline on traders to vacate the streets. In the name of 'restoring order', police launched a harsh campaign during which it fired tear gas to disperse vendors protesting against the 'clean-up' campaign launched by government. Since then, street vendors have been forced to play a hide-and-seek game with local government officials for mere economic survival.

While Mutharika considers the removal of vendors from Malawi's streets as a major achievement, organisations such as the Malawi Union for the Informal Sector (MUFIS), a War on Want partner, have highlighted the way in which these measures have destroyed people's livelihoods. MUFIS campaigns for an end to the stigmatisation of street vendors and argues vendors should be treated as workers contributing to the economy, not as tax-evading criminals. In recent years, MUFIS has become an affiliate of the country's trade union movement, the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU).

President Mutharika's main contender in the elections, John Tembo, of the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), has promised street vendors that they will be allowed back onto the streets if they offer him support. Opposition parties want to see vendors selling their wares or operating their businesses in streets and towns without hindrance.

However, MUFIS has seen these tactics all before. During the election campaign, politicians employed street vendors to organise meetings, raise party flags in their markets and advertise campaign materials at their places of work.

Vendors and traders constitute a major part of Malawi's labour force and are therefore a major voting constituency for politicians. However, street vendors have lost hope in the repeated promises made by politicians. MUFIS' members are still looking for a political party that will genuinely advocate for the interests of street vendors and informal workers instead of using them for political gain.

Meanwhile, new agencies report that President Mutharika took a strong early lead on Wednesday 20 May in the presidential election.

The first results of Tuesday's presidential poll from the central region, traditionally an opposition stronghold, showed wa Mutharika had 845,000 votes with 254,000 for opposition leader Tembo.

A handful of results from polling stations in the capital, Lilongwe, showed the president had an even bigger lead there. A parliamentary vote was also held on 19 May.

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