A visit to iLEDA Schools for democracy in Malawi

iLEDA Volunteer Amy Eaglestone from the Netherlands visits Idasa’s iLEDA School for citizen leadership for democracy in Malawi. She travelled to the southern African country with iLEDA School head Noxolo Mgudlwa and trainers Auburn Daniels and Lesley Adams. She discovers several development challenges and argues for citizen leadership training.

By Amy Eaglestone
It was raining when my colleagues and I landed on the only flight that day into Lilongwe International Airport in Malawi. It wasn’t the tropical rain that buckets down to offer a short respite from the African heat and humidity, but that European drizzle, that does nothing but make your clothes and hair damp and uncomfortable. So as we ran across the tarmac to the shuttle bus, I mentioned to my colleague that this wasn’t exactly what I was expecting in the heart of Africa.
But to a westerner like me, Malawi met my expectations. The women wear colorful traditional African dresses, they carry heavy buckets of water and other necessities on their heads, food is sold from small stalls or just off the ground along the main roads, the red soil stains everything, coca-cola in little glass bottles is so sweet it makes your teeth stick together, you need a 4×4 to get from one town to the next and the best place in town to eat is the café behind the petrol station. But above all it is where natural beauty, cultural diversity and extreme poverty go hand in hand.

Yet in our line of work of African development, Malawi is not at all typical. It ranks number one in Africa for per capita international Development Aid. It is overrun with international NGOs vying for space and attention. At the conference centre where we were working on Lake Malawi every car in the car park was a white SUV with UN, EU or another international organization logo on the door. Every room in the building was used by one of these organisations for a workshop or conference.
Malawi is an attractive destination for development aid and the idyllic views, the night sky, the sunset cruises and the Malawi gin add to that attraction. Above all the people are friendly and fun loving. However, the presence of all these international development NGO’s and massive state budget support do not yet seem to have produced the intended results.
The UNDP finds that over 65% of Malawians are still living in severe poverty and the UNDP human development index ranks Malawi at 160 out of 182 countries. Major issues like corruption, HIV/AIDS and domestic and sexual violence are also prevalent .
Unfortunately the presence of so much Aid also seems to have negative effects on society in Malawi. Two examples of negative Aid side effects caught my eye.
Within civil society a per diem culture has developed whereby local charity workers and community leaders expect and even demand to be financially remunerated for attending any kind of event or activity. This culture was created when rivaling NGO’s measured their success on the number of attendants to their events and therefore offered an added incentive. Unfortunately this has led to these events becoming a source of income which makes people’s motivations to attend questionable.
There is also the broader issue of an Aid mentality. Citizens seem to have become reliant on Aid and do not see it as a temporary solution. This has caused citizens to become inactive within civil society and for them to stop helping themselves or voicing their views, because eventually a charity will come along and take care of it for them anyway.
After just a few days in Malawi I started to question why we were even there, did I want to be party to these development aid faux-pas? But the causes for my concerns are the exact reasons why the iLEDA programme should be in Malawi.
To end this cycle of aid a new generation of community leaders is needed that act as change makers at a local level. These community leaders will assist with rebuilding a vibrant civil society to act in the interest of communities and participate in decision making that affects them. Only then can sustainable development be achieved.
During this visit we completed iLEDA’s first Community Leadership Training course in Malawi. Participants of the course, 29 community leaders from the Mangochi and Zomba areas, spent over 9 months developing skills and knowledge that will change their approach to development and their relationship with the development community. Most importantly the community leaders developed an understanding for what they could achieve  in order to ensure sustainable development of their communities.

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