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Friday, April 5, 2013

Malawi: Recent Developments and U.S. Relations

Nicolas Cook
Specialist in African Affairs

President Barack Obama’s Administration and a number of Members of Congress welcomed Malawian President Joyce Banda’s accession to power, largely because she reversed a number of contentious decisions taken by her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika. Banda succeeded him after he died in early April 2012 while serving a contentious second term. Banda’s status as Africa’s second female president, an internationally recognized women’s rights advocate, and a leader with socioeconomic development expertise has also attracted U.S. and other international support for her. There are some indications that Banda may pursue a foreign policy aligned with selected U.S. regional policy goals, and in March 2013, President Obama invited Banda to the White House to discuss democratic strengthening, trade, and investment. In August 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Malawi to discuss economic and governance reforms and to highlight U.S.-funded development projects. In September 2012 Banda addressed a gathering of Members of Congress at a forum on U.S.-Malawian and broader U.S.-African relations.

Malawi, a former British colony, is a small, poor southeastern African country that underwent a democratic transition from one-party rule in the early 1990s and has long relied on donor aid. Under Mutharika, however, Malawi’s ties with donors had been damaged over concerns related to economic management, undemocratic governance trends, and Mutharika’s acrimonious stance toward donors. Upon taking office, Banda—who had served as Mutharika’s vice president and therefore succeeded him upon his death—initiated a series of economic and governance reform efforts, seeking to reverse changes made under Mutharika. In response, most donors that had suspended aid under Mutharika reinstated it, a welcome prospect for Malawi’s flagging economy. Such reinstated aid included a U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact.

Key donor-backed policy changes made by Banda have included a devaluation of the national currency, the kwacha, and efforts to repeal several controversial civil and political rights laws passed under Mutharika. She also set out a number of policies designed to spur socioeconomic development and growth, gender equality, and respect for human rights, and supported fiscal austerity measures, including budget cuts affecting the presidency. Banda faces interlinked economic and political challenges arising from her management of the faltering economy she inherited from Mutharika. Her decision to devalue the currency was intended to foster freemarket processes in the long run in order to spur greater production for local and export markets and boost macroeconomic stability, among other ends. In the short run, however, it has sharply driven up inflation, including for fuel and food, sparking public protests and labor strikes. In addition, some donors have released aid funds more slowly than initially anticipated or have imposed new aid policy conditions. Banda also faces rifts within her own party and faltering parliamentary support. The recent arrest of several former Mutharika officials on treason charges related to a plot to prevent Banda’s constitutional accession to the presidency has also caused controversy.

In addition to a $350 million, five-year MCC compact, the United States provides significant bilateral aid focused on food security and agricultural growth; poverty reduction; health and education; economic growth; and democracy and good governance. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-administered bilateral assistance to Malawi totaled over $173 million in FY2011; an estimated $167 million in FY2012; and $146 million in requested funds for FY2013.

Date of Report: March 21, 2013
Number of Pages: 23
Order Number: R42856
Price: $29.95

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