LILONGWE, MALAWI—A much-needed humanitarian aid check from the United Nations to Malawi was "totally blown" by the beleaguered Southern African nation before the actual payment arrived, government officials admitted Tuesday.
"We've been living so hand-to-mouth lately that, as soon as we received word that aid was coming, we began buying some necessary items," President Bakili Muluzi said when reached by phone at his home office. "We got a little out of control. Then again, we couldn't bear the thought of another dinner of bark."
The $50 million check, a combination of funds from UNICEF, World Food Programme, and other U.N. agencies, was intended to help alleviate disease and famine in Malawi, which has been devastated by recent flooding and the sub-Saharan AIDS pandemic. Although the check wasn't due to arrive until Aug. 11, Malawi officials were promised the money on Aug. 4 and behaved as though the cash was already in their hands.
"When we found out money was on the way, we celebrated by immediately going out and buying 200,000 bushels of maize," Malawi Agricultural Minister Chakufwa Chihana said. "We even said, 'What the heck, let's throw in a little millet.' Big mistake."
Government officials also bought fuel and medical supplies, promising suppliers that a big check was on the way.
"When we flashed the letter from the U.N., our suppliers were more than happy to float us a few imports, just until the check arrived," Muluzi said. "Unfortunately, we didn't keep track of every little crate of AIDS medicine. When we added it all up, it came to, like, 40 million bucks."
A few high-ticket items sneaked onto the list of purchases, among them a new computer system for an agricultural weigh station outside Chilumba.
"We told ourselves we would only get the things we really needed," Muluzi said. "But when we found out that the weigh station needed a new computer, we figured it was now or never."
Giddy with the promise of a large cash deposit, Malawi lent struggling neighbor Mozambique $1 million, under the express agreement that Mozambique was to repay the money Aug. 8, when its own relief check came in.
"Bad move," Muluzi said. "In terms of repaying loans, Mozambique is as bad as Tanzania. On payback day, [Mozambique Prime Minister] Pascoal [Mocumbi] called me and said that we still owed him money for the cashew nuts and sisal twine we imported in February 1996."
On Aug. 6, unanticipated events plunged Malawi further into debt. A mudslide outside Lilongwe devastated a shantytown and displaced hundreds of its residents. The problem was compounded by bandits in northern rural areas who prevented aid trucks from entering the disaster area until large payments of cash and food were made.
"Then, the goddamn fan belt on our newest food-distribution truck broke," Muluzi said. "Fixing it set us back a lot, even though it was less than two years old. What could we do, though? We needed to distribute the maize."
Deep in debt, Malawi officials resorted to tactics employed during past cash crunches. Government employees found their paychecks postdated two weeks. Interest payments to creditors were delayed by the deliberate transposing of addresses on envelopes. Creditors who phoned government offices were thrown off by deceptive outgoing voicemail messages claiming that the government was out of town and would be back Aug. 20.
Such tactics are common among countries receiving assistance, according to Malawi's U.N. humanitarian aid advisor Donna Roush.
"It's obvious what [Finance Minister Friday Jumbe] was trying to do," Roush said. "Malawi has been independent for decades, and he's written enough checks to know that if you owe somebody $74,000, you can't write in $47,000 and have no one notice."
"Although money is often tight right before a large aid check is due, countries must resist the urge to splurge," Roush added. "If you live off money that doesn't exist yet, you have to pay the piper at some point. Resist the temptation. The key is to create a budget for yourself and stick to it. Save money by eating your own crops, instead of imports, and make sure your coal plants are running as efficiently as possible."
Roush's advice provided little comfort to Muluzi.
"The humanitarian aid people always act like recipient countries are irresponsible, but we're trying very hard to keep our spending in check," Muluzi said. "For years, we've had our eye on a brand-new hydroelectric plant for a site outside Blantyre. It would be totally perfect, but we have put the project on hold yet again, because we just don't have the money."
Continued Muluzi: "This whole humanitarian aid thing can be a real bummer. It's our money to keep, but technically, it's not really our money. We have to spend it the second we get it. It feels like we're never going to get ahead. What can I say? Being poor sucks."