The Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), in its short life spanning from 2000 can claim a number of successes, especially as regards its influence on socio-economic policy in the country. MEJN is now jostling it out at the apex with the big guns on civil society activities aimed at the promotion of good governance and capacity building in the civil society. Though this is the case, the picture has not always been rosy. The picture MEJN portrays today stems from a history of dedication to vision and self-sacrifice. MEJN began from very humble begins.
The MEJN GENESIS STORY is a story of the hardships, self-denial, blind faith, perseverance, and most of all patriotism that characterized the early years leading to the emergence of MEJN as a leader in civil society interventions today. The story is from the perspectives of people we can term “men of faith” because of their relentless push to achieve this great vision. These stories have been captured so that, as MEJN members we do not lose track of where we are coming from and the experiences we have gained so that we base our future on this strong background.
Jubilee 2000… Francis Ng’ambi- MEJN Board Chair 2000- 2003
In Mr. Ng’ambi’s account of the activities that led to the formation of MEJN, he vividly recalls the ‘Jubilee 2000 debt cancellation campaign’. This was a campaign aimed at lobbying for debt cancellation for the third world countries. In his words, Mr. Ng’ambi recounts; “The saga began in December 1998 as a faith-based idea with roots in the bible books of Leviticus, Isaiah, and Luke which talk of the Year of Jubilee, in which the world is given time to rest and regenerate after every 50 years. To the Jews this meant that debt would be cancelled and prisoners would be set free. Thus the social environment in 1998 was looking at the issue of third world country debt as an issue of bondage….” He continues by recalling that in Malawi, the American Episcopal Conference took the leading role in this campaign. An American came to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) where he (Mr. Ng’ambi) was then employed, to talk of debt issues. He recounts that at first it did not make sense to him… “We borrowed, so it is only proper that we have to pay back. It is our obligation…” were facts in his understanding of it all. It was after further reading and sensitizations that he began to realize the injustice and the disadvantages of the poor with respect to rich countries.
‘I was blind but now I see….’ Through the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and GTZ some small funds were raised to organize a meeting where different sectors in Malawi were to discuss debt issues. Alas! Participants did not understand a thing at the meeting…. In fact Mr. Ng’ambi remembers that at the end of the day their ideologies on debt cancellation made them a laughing stock of every discussion and to make matters worse, government (of Malawi) was very resistant to talk about debt because of the alleged sensitivity and controversy the issues were suspected to connote. Under the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) era, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda was regarded as a good boy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) because he made Debt Servicing a priority. So now, for this ‘new’ government to advocate for debt cancellation was seen as a quest for war against the IMF/WB. “What was both funny and mystifying at this time” Ng’ambi says, “was that the Government did not know its current debt which was then standing at around a staggering US$2.9 billion.”
This circumstance did not deter these men (Mr. Ng’ambi, Fr. Andrews Mvula, and Fr. Jos Kuppens) as they continued to link Malawi to the international scene through the Jubilee Debt Campaign and support from African Forum and Network On Debt and Development (AFRODAD). Among stakeholders who joined in this campaign for debt cancellation by the start of the new millennium were; a man called Paul Harper who cycled from Australia to Malawi fighting for debt cancellation for Malawi; the Economic Justice Network (EJN) and the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) all of whom passionately came to talk of debt. These efforts managed to mobilize over 20,000 signatures thereby partially being successful in kick starting the process leading to the birth of the PRSPs, as a procedure and strategy for ensuring that the cancelled debt would actually be used for Poverty reducing activities in the countries concerned, as a precondition towards full debt cancellation. This was the case because International Financing Institutions (IFIs) refused total debt cancellation at the Okinawa Conference in Japan (1998) but instead opted for debt relief. Malawi did not qualify for the conditions of the initial debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC 1) Initiative but after making some more noise the country was eligible for HIPC 2.
‘What followed then…?’ Now that the campaign had achieved somewhat (some) success in its goal, there was a quandary on what would be the way forward for this debt campaign. The group of civil society organizations involved in the debt campaign then decided to meet in Boadzulu, Mangochi in November 2000 to deliberate on the future of the debt campaign for Malawi. They agreed that they should change the focus of the campaign to now look at Economic Justice, a much more broader and comprehensive economic scope – hence the name change to Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN). This network was mandated to be a watchdog; to participate in PRSP formulation processes (as a pre-condition for HIPC 2) and its monitoring; lobbying & advocacy; and fighting for debt cancellation in a different way.
‘MEJN in the beginning…’ MEJN had some serious financial and organizational problems making its operational life difficult. To begin with, there was no funding for both the MEJN secretariat and its activities. Although the Jubilee 2000 campaign was being housed in the CCJP offices, MEJN could no longer be housed in the same premises, thereby bringing about some hitches with the immediate need of finding office space. In the mean time, MEJN continued to be swelteringly housed in CCJP offices amidst those administrative and resource difficulties.
The secretariat was set up with great difficulties: no organizational structure, no conditions of service, etc. Mr. Ng’ambi and others used their personal resources to sustain a newly recruited officer for the Secretariat, one Collins Magalasi. This prompted his wife (Mrs. Ng’ambi), Mr. Ng’ambi hazily recalls, to actually say that he was spending money on something that cannot work. But he still had the zeal to set up something (though he did not fully realize it then) that was for the good of the country.
‘Major hardships…’ Mr. Ng’ambi recalls that in the beginning recognition of MEJN activities and goals by government was non-existent. “Government thought of us as a confused bunch….” Despite these setbacks, MEJN fought tooth and nail to find its way into the thematic groups of the MPRSP formulation; it confronted the IMF on its tendency of just dealing/consulting with the Government only without making available any space for consultation with the civil society that elects it.
A notable break-through worth mentioning was when the suggestions to make PRSP formulation and monitoring tripartite with full involvement of the civil society as beneficiaries and as such important stakeholders not to be left out, was taken up by government alongside the inclusion of Pro-Poor Expenditures (PPEs) phenomenon in the budget, as part of the requisite for inclusion in the process. Thus the MEJN genesis account by Mr. Francis Ng’ambi, the Board Chair for MEJN ended.
Malawi Economic Justice Network — Collins Magalasi, MEJN Executive Director 2000- to date
‘A Journey into the unknown…’ Mr. Magalasi joined the system in 2000 just after the Boadzulu MEJN Genesis Meeting. He had left his full time job at ADMARC in Blantyre and came to Lilongwe in December 2000 to meet Mr. Ng’ambi and Fr. Kuppens (people he had never met before). He arrived on a Saturday but did not manage to meet them, as it was a weekend. He did not have any friends in Lilongwe so he put up at a rest house and later on at some new friend’s place in Chinsapo.
He recounts that he met Mr. Ng’ambi on Monday and started work immediately without knowing his salary. His first task, he narrates, was to draft a proposal to OXFAM for secretariat funding, as there was no money for its activities and staff salaries, a phenomenon that proved to be very difficult for him to comprehend. “… I had a fairly well paying job in Blantyre that I kept asking myself – what am I doing here?” Nevertheless he went on doing his job but still putting up with a friend in Chinsapo. Time came for him to move out when ‘some’ accommodation was found for him at Nsamba, Lilongwe (around St Johns Catholic Secondary School). He had no money for rent so Fr. Kuppens intervened to pay rent on Collins’ behalf. Though this new location was 25 minutes bus-time away from his office (housed in CCJP-Area 4) he still had to walk to work for over two hours, as he could not afford a mini-bus fare. OXFAM then intervened with some money after three months for the MEJN secretariat —though this was the case all funds were handled by the CCJP. Collins was now receiving something – a gross pay of MK 6, 000.00 (salary, housing and transport inclusive).
He recalls that at this point in time, doubts in what he was working for starting creeping in, as he started to reflect on what his life would have been like had he remained in Blantyre. Although this was the situation, he could not run away to hide in the comfort of family and friends in Blantyre because he could now have been likened to a prodigal son – as he had hidden the real reason for his departure from Blantyre. “… I had lied that I was going to Lilongwe for a meeting when in fact I was going to start a new life in a new job, the details of which I did not know….”
Having stayed at Nsamba for three weeks, he then found a house in Area 23 and later on moved to Falls Estate. He recounts that life was till tough, as he still did not have enough money to buy food, pay for transport, let alone pay rent. “… At this time I went for four months without a salary…” he laments. And yet again, the two men of faith Fr. Kuppens and Mr. Ng’ambi on more than one occasion came to the rescue with money for food and rent respectively.
‘Early Working Experiences…More hiccups…’ Under the tutelage of the parent organization, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) offices, MEJN had a lot of challenges and conflicts facing it. MEJN was without resources. Transport, Communication, Computers.
Travel, Flipcharts in hands … Mr. Magalasi recalls that at one time there was a need for him and a few others to travel to Blantyre for a workshop and they were ‘allowed’ to service one of the unserviced vehicles belonging to the host institution for them to use, but upon bringing it back to the office ready for departure, ‘some-one’ took it deliberately home. When they confronted ‘this man’ to inquire of the vehicle, they were bluntly told that ‘ikulira penapake’ (it is revving somewhere) – telling them that they cannot take the car because it is not fully functional but instead, if they want a car to Blantyre, they should take another ‘spare’ vehicle – a non-runner vehicle officially for the use of the National Secretary of the host institution.
They went to the Human Resource Manager to explain what had happened and they were given the keys to proposed car, which they again took to a garage for service and were ready to leave for Blantyre around 17.00hrs and indeed they departed. Unfortunately, when they were just about to leave Lilongwe City proper (at Bunda College road block popularly known as Six miles) they met the Secretary General, who was on his way back from Blantyre. He told them to take the car back to the office because he had not authorized it and he emphasized that this was his position and he did not want any negotiations. Mr. Magalasi tried to liaise with him trying to implore for his understanding with respect to the time and the delays, but to no avail…. They gave up, but only as far as getting the cars from the institution was concerned. Instead, unswerving in their determination to get to the workshop, they left that same evening for Blantyre with their flipchart papers and stand in hands on foot… rather by the Shire Bus Lines’ night rider bus traveling all night arriving in Blantyre at 05.00hrs am the following morning and facilitating the workshop which began at 07.30hrs that same morning.
The Oil … Another story that depicts the kind of working mentality that characterizes MEJN’s early years was the oil story. Then with a new recruit namely Mr. Mavuto Bamusi, MEJN had to conduct a workshop in Mzuzu, but had no transport. Mr. N’gambi offered his personal car- BL 4922. Magalasi and Bamusi set out on this long journey into Mzuzu but just as they got to Mponela they noticed some irregularities with the car, stopped to check the situation and noticed that oil was pouring out of the car engine… “should we turn back or go forward?” they decided that they would continue their journey to Mzuzu and would conduct this workshop. They bought pints of oil at every filling station they found. Seeing that they needed refilling at least after every 30 minutes, they bought 100 pints of oil at Kasungu BP station, ready for expedition in Chikangawa Forest. They even took some ‘unauthorized passengers’ -“matola” – strategically so that they would get help if the car were to give more trouble. They made it into Mzuzu after about 8 hours – of course, in the early hours of the day of the workshop. They did their work, got the car fixed and came back to Lilongwe the next day to continue their different tasks.
MEJN continued–Mavuto Bamusi. Director of Programmes fom 19… to 20….
Mr. Mavuto Bamusi joined MEJN in November 2001. He came to know about MEJN because of, he says, “from its remarkable abilities working on the PRSP…” .He previously had been a member of an NGO working closely with MEJN on the PRSP- in fact he was a member on the MEJN taskforce on the PRSP. Unfortunately or fortunately, his NGO disbanded and because of his background in MEJN work Mr. Bamusi was set up to join. MEJN was heavily understaffed and here was a young man who had spent a better part of his time working with MEJN and was ready to propagate and advance this noble cause. Though this was the case, he still had to undergo the rigorous interviews by the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM). He was selected among many amidst much controversy because of his religion (Seventh Day Adventist) in the largely Catholic institute.
Mr. Bamusi in his account of his early days in MEJN divides the challenges met into two- challenges due to the work and logistical challenges….
Challenges due to the work… Firstly, the challenge arose because initially MEJN was involved only with the PRSP supported through a sketchy proposal to OXFAM. Any other activities (i.e. trade advocacy, economic literacy etc.) being planned were to be done on a voluntary basis with the understaffing problem in the backdrop. The challenge here was to come up with a MEJN programme concept or an operational framework that would capture the interest of some donors. Mavuto remembers that they practically spent some sleepless nights trying to come up with innovative ideas that would be both rational and workable to the donors and the civil society in general. The aim here was to broaden MEJN activities beyond the PRSP.
How to implement the diverse projects… Secondly, the challenge was now how to implement these new programmes (Economic literacy, Budget monitoring, Trade) being suggested considering that no donor was willing to provide wholesale funding for MEJN to carry out its programmes and to report to one funding agency. The only option available was the basket funding whereby a “donor would just pick up a program, say, Economic Literacy and fund it….” This approach was met with mixed feelings and it was fiercely fought, by many.
How to deliver through performance… Thirdly, was the issue of Capacity. With Mr. Bamusi’s introduction to the MEJN set up, the secretariat now comprised of two members of staff, which was still too little to ably comprehend the pressure of work and growing MEJN expectations. On top of this, MEJN had no funding for most of its programmes warranting for most of the work being on voluntary basis, a feat that was deemed too austere for anyone wishing to join the organisation. This deterred a lot of potential employees from joining, except one man, namely Mike Nyirenda who came in handy from time to time to render his services on a voluntary basis.
Logistical Challenges… No transport… During this time, MEJN as an institution had no vehicles and the two guys, Magalasi and Bamusi modestly had to rely on public transport and sometimes friends who had the means, like vehicles, as donors were only willing to provide funds for hiring transport but not necessarily purchasing a vehicle. Bamusi recalls that at one time when they pursued this matter further with some potential donor they were offered a provision for the purchase of motorcycles – much to their dismay….
Office space…This, in CCJP was just too minute – “ in fact we can say that the room we used as our office was a mere room, two (2) by two (2) by one and a half (1 ½) metres small…” he laughs. “You would be having a meeting with one person with other guests, legs stretched, (waiting for their turn) participating in your meeting… It was a very funny office with just one computer.”
Procedures… Beyond all these logistical challenges, was the issue of procedures. There were no proper procedures on how to handle administrative or financial issues. Mr. Bamusi recalls, “We had some role strains, as we were Administrative Officers, Financial Officers, and Project Officers, …Secretaries/Receptionists (the list could go on), all rolled into the two of us. This caused us to operate haphazardly, have ‘knee-jerk’ or unplanned reactions to events happening around us, that needed MEJN’s intervention….”
Light at the end of the tunnel… A task force, which eventually culminated into a board, was then put in place to iron out some of these hitches facing MEJN. It worked hard to formulate proper administrative and financial procedures. And then, when the secretariat decided to move out of the host houses, the task force supported this decision, beefing up the courage of Magalasi and Bamusi to go find new offices for MEJN. This, however, did not please the then host institution who tried to discredit MEJN in the eyes of the donor agencies, amidst the allegations that, for instance, said that the two boys in MEJN were both young and inexperienced and as such could not handle the financial aspects of projects by themselves…that they would mismanage resources…. The challenge here was for these two boys plus the task force to justify to the donors, especially around their reasons for wanting to move from the then building, and to demonstrate in one form or another their prowess in managing projects alongside the finances. They eventually moved out to Gowa House Offices in City Centre, and in the first few months, donors insisted that they get CCJP help managing the financial and logistical aspects of their programmes until eventually they let their hands off having proved to the contrary, to the extent that not even a single donor official came down any more (from as far as South Africa) to supervise or verify these.
Beefing up staff… Recruitments… It was after occupying the larger Office space in Gowa House that, an Accountant cum Administrative Officer, (Mrs. G.A. Magombo) and then an Administrative Assistant (Ms L. Kadyampakeni) were recruited. By this time the demands and expectations of MEJN continued to soar higher with its consequent soaring efficiency and effectiveness, thus heightening the already existent operational challenges and pressures. This thus induced a strong and significant need for an immediate implementation of the division of labour concept in terms of the programmes and resulted in the recruiting of two more Project Officers, one for PRSP/Budget Monitoring in March 2003 (Mr. D.K.G. Kubalasa) and then the other one for Economic Governance in April 2003 (Mrs. M.T. Kwataine). Trying to complete the jigsaw puzzle of roles and responsibilities while trying as much as possible to do away with any ‘role strains’ in MEJN was the recruitment of a Driver cum Office Assistant in November 2003 (Mr. Felix Mongola) adding up now to what is quite a formidable team of seven permanent staff members at the Malawi Economic Justice Network.
But for OXFAM … MEJN had no face among donors in its early days. The network had no history of managing donor funds, nobody heard of MEJN until in 2001. Each donor when approached said “… give us a copy of your latest annual audit report … where on earth was the young MEJN going to have audit when nobody funded it! But only Joint Oxfam Programme in Malawi (JOPM) understood MEJN. Collins recounts the first huge money that MEJN got in 2001 was MK 105,000 (US US$ 1,470 then) meant to pay rent, communication, salaries, stationery and hold three stakeholder meetings! It was quite a risk to Oxfam. Things were done though, and three months later JOPM released MK 300,000 for six month, followed by grant of GDP 25,057.75, then GBP 58,439.92, and another GBP 57,099.39 … experiencing the growth of a child that it helped be born – Oxfam funded the first meeting that conceptualized MEJN.
Other Partners too … The understanding exists in all MEJN supporters. Today MEJN has partnered with Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ireland Aid, Trocaire, Christian Aid, Panos, ActionAid, just to mention a few, all of them responding to the requests as developed by the MEJN.
So it is true that the theory can be put into practice … thanks to God … Indeed knock and the door shall be opened unto you … are the words that the founders say today. MEJN has survived on and is guided by the following values:
- “Strength in unity of our members”
- “A holy anger at the injustice and suffering of the poor”
- “A spirit of selfless service, not what-is-in-it-for-us”
- “A belief in the power of people to change the situation”
- “Reckless courage and determination to overcome insults, opposition, abandonment and resource scarcity”
- “A learning adventure to put theory into practice”