On 27 April 2011, it was confirmed that the British High Commissioner to Malawi, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, had been expelled from Malawi because the President, Bingu wa Mutharika, was displeased with a report he had sent to Britain highlighting the Malawian President's increasingly dictatorial style.
In retaliation, the British Government has asked Malawi's Acting High Commissioner in Britain, Flossie Gomile Chidyaonga and her dependents to leave.
I knew this news was the beginning of worse things to come and all Malawians are really scared for the country: some rumours have it that Britain will stop all aid to Malawi within the next six months. The only people that stand to lose out are the innocent poor. So that you can grasp how desperate the situation is, below are some of Malawi's development stats:
In his second term, even his supporters have disputed many of his decisions: he purchased a $13.3m jet (supposedly a Government asset) which itself led to a reduction in aid from Britain and other countries (see below graph), the ensuing lack of forex has led to severe fuel shortages, press freedom has been curtailed, he spent $2 - 4m in 2010 on wedding celebrations for his second marriage (the first wife died of cancer in May 2007), he spent money that the country could ill afford on changing the national flag, despite national protest. With another three years left to his term, I wonder what else we can expect.
Bingu has bitten the hand that feeds us but I hope that Britain can see beyond the despot's actions to the needs of the destitute people that he is supposed to represent.
UK Government finances and the NHS
Channel 4's Dispatches programme last night gave some insights into the pressures facing nurses and doctors in severely short-staffed hospitals that have even more cuts to look forward to. Some parts were very tough to watch: one elderly lady dreaded eating because the nurse feeding her was so rushed off her feet that she made her swallow faster than she could handle, hurting her in the process; another wet herself several times before someone could attend to her. The key problem was that there simply weren't enough health professionals to handle the volume of patients.
The reality we face is that UK Government debt has shot up sharply since 2007, when the credit crunch hit. The Maastricht Treaty, which was signed in 1992 and was one of the key milestones in forming a single monetary union in the EU set the ideal level of national-debt-to-GDP as less than or equal to 60% and an optimal deficit-to-GDP ratio of 3% or under. Gordon Brown went further and set in place a self-imposed limit of debt:GDP of 40%, the so-called "Golden Rule". All these rules have since been blown out the water.
The deficit to GDP ratio stands at 10.2% (Office of National Statistics, ONS, website) and debt to GDP is just shy of 80% according to the ONS or in the region of 150% using Timetric's methodology (graph below)! If Britain's financial position is not brought under control we could face a ratings downgraded, thereby increasing our cost of funding (amongst many things) and making an already bad situation a lot, lot worse.
I will not opine on where the cuts should come from but one observation from the Dispatches documentary that struck a chord with me is the limited amount of family involvement that I saw. If we cannot avoid the pending cuts to the NHS, could family be more involved so as to alleviate the current pressures on health staff?
I will use my own country as an example. In Malawi, the hospitals are not only full of patients but also carers. Nurses and doctors are primarily involved in diagnosing, prescribing and monitoring patients and a member of the family takes care of feeding, bathing and minute-by-minute care for the patient. Whenever someone has to go to hospital one of the first questions asked is, "who will be there with them?" Family will even sleep at the hospital, under the bed or on a chair to ensure someone is always waiting on the patient.
Of course, many in Britain cannot afford to have a relative to hand 24/7 but I think there could be a part solution within the Malawi model. Perhaps, a template could be drawn up outlining all the ways in which family could get involved with patient care, ways that would not get in the way of nurse and doctors, then on a case-by-case basis doctors and nurses can determine what services relatives will take care of versus what the doctors/nurses will do. This information can form part of the notes kept for the patient. Currently, the duty to ensure patients are fed and bathed falls on nurses and other hospital staff but this is not really a task that one has to qualify for, if close family (and even friends) can commit time they could take care of such things.
The problem we would likely come up against is that a) "health and safety" (don't even get me started on that one) and b) no one wants to make such a commitment, most people claim not to have even enough time for themselves let alone time to help out with sick relatives and friends. Perhaps it's time to take stock of how individualistic society has become and roll back.
"I love this woman, I wish there were more like her on TV, the rest of them are just too frivolous!" my boyfriend said excitedly halfway through Episode 3 of Channel 4's brand new series Superscrimpers: Waste Not Want Not. I knew exactly what he meant, when he'd reminded me she'd be on later that evening I'd widened my eyes and inhaled deeply like a five year old girl presented with a bar of candy because the show is a real treat.
There are three aspects to the show: 1) Mrs Moneypenny shows a family with a financial goal how they can achieve it, 2) Mrs Moneypenny and her army of Superscrimpers shows the rest of us how we can do better and 3) Merryn Somerset Webb gives us a few investment tips.
Episodes 1 and 2 showed families that were overspending by a large margin despite a healthy disposable income. I was frankly a little dismayed at how people can have such poor control over their finances, but hey, who am I to judge? Episode 3, on the other hand, showed a family failing to save enough for a deposit to buy their own house, again because they couldn't identify areas where they could cut back or indeed how they could juice up household income. A colleague watched the show for the first time last night (I've been begging him to) and thought it was pointless because everything was so obvious. However, is it? Common sense is not common to everyone (I paraphrase the French philosopher, Voltaire). We work in finance and as such, relative to the average person, spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about money matters and so should be better placed to manage our money (I'd hope). Indeed, most of the worst money-handlers I know work in finance. If you grew up switching off lights, turning the tap off when you're brushing your teeth, switching appliances off at the mains when you're not using them - well then it becomes second nature to you. If not, having to change old habits is a real chore, you're ever tempted to revert to old ways.
The show has actually come at a very opportune time. The boyfriend and I have just recently come to the end of our first year of cohabiting and have been assessing our spending habits. It would have been very easy to slip into year two without stopping to do this evaluation but we did, and in the process discovered our electricity supplier had increased our monthly direct debit without informing us, all our insurers (home emergency and buildings insurance) were no longer the most competitive and we actually decided that some of the things that we look upon as base necessities should now be looked upon as treats.
Chief amongst the things that have moved into the "treat" pile for me is lunch: I now take my own lunch into work. I am allowed to buy lunch say once a week but I'm now in week 6 of this challenge and will be buying lunch for the very first time on Friday. I thought the whole lunch thing would be an insurmountable challenge because I've tried it before and it didn't work but on all the days I would have failed (pretty much all of this week) the boyfriend's been there for me.
Two weeks ago we stepped up our efforts by buying an electricity monitor and it has completely changed some of the things we do. It's straightforward to use, once set up it tells you how much electricity the house is currently using; you can then go around the housing switching appliances on and off to see how the energy consumption changes. The power shower completely shocked us - from a base of about 200kWh we were suddenly on 9,500kWh. To put that in money terms, we moved from using £20 per month to £900 per month in electricity usage just by switching the power shower on - given we both have two showers a day, it then became obvious why our energy bill had gone up since we'd moved to this house. Needless to say, that morning's shower was the last power shower I have had since, we now use the shower that's on our bath and frankly, I prefer it because I can get right in without waiting for the skin-scalding hot shot and skin-curdling cold shot that precedes every power shower.
I hope all of the Superscrimping tips will be compiled into an e-book because some of them are priceless. The best one so far involves placing stockings in the freezer before their first worn to stop ladders forming - hello? Why did I not know about this before, I'll save loads of time and money with that one tip alone. Yvonne is my favorite Superscrimper, she's really quite adorable, but she is so hardcore I don't think I could ever implement any of her tips - she cuts collars off her hubby's shirts when they're fully worn and sews them back on in reverse to double their life span. Saving money is good but when you work 12 to 14 hour days, saving time takes precedence.
There is a more subtle lesson to be learnt from Superscrimpers. The growth of the internet in collaboration with cheap and easy-to-obtain credit has made it so easy for people to spend money they simply don't have. I for one find it difficult to manage a credit card so although I can rack up airmiles and dozens of other benefits with it, I find myself spending more so I simply don't use one. Can Brits spend more wisely? Absolutely: as the chart below shows credit card debt jumped up by almost 500% from Jan-94 to its peak in Jan-10 so there's lots of room for superscrimping to reduce this debt mountain.
As for me, there are 30 minutes in the week when my boyfriend has only got eyes for Mrs Moneypenny, but that's okay because I feel the same!
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from but you carry with you a mixed bag of erroneous stereotypes. Some people are unwilling to accept this fact and are even less willing to change and I unknowingly used to be one of those but after moving from Malawi where I was 98% surrounded by fellow Malawians to UK where I tend to be the only African in my various social circles I am constantly revising my views of pretty much everything.
So what brought this on? A colleague of mine recently moved to Hong Kong and I received an update email from him today where he stated "I've never lived outside the UK. This place is weird. Full of Chinese people." This was not a racist comment at all, my colleague is himself of Chinese origin, it was the last thing I expected him to say and after a brief pause, I burst out laughing - at myself for subconsciously thinking he would blend right in because he looked like everyone around him and then for being shocked that he didn't. I of all people should know that the way you look on the outside almost means nothing, I have found that the people I get along with have normally got a similar background to myself and more often than not look nothing like I do. I have also learnt that life is very different when you live and work in an environment with many cultures compared to one lacking in diversity.
However, like as not, just by existing in the world that we do, if you read, watch TV or listen to the radio you are bombarded with views, many of them prejudiced in some form or another. What are these? I list a few below, not in any particular order:
1. Many people think all women grew up fantasizing about the day they will get married - really? The first time I ever even thought I wanted to get married I was well over 20. However, it is true for a lot of people, my little sister included. I like the idea of marriage now, but I never gave the concept any thought when I was growing up.
2. Women love shopping, if they could they would shop day in, day out. I hate shopping, I like clothes and pretty things but I would much rather a personal shopper brought these to my door step like Deborah Meaden apparently does. I hate the crowds, I don't like queuing and the general wastage of time as you move from shop to shop does not sit well with me.
3. People with dread locks are predominantly subversives or ruffians or both...do you ever change train carriage when you see someone with locks? Come on, be honest.
4. The worst stereotypes I find are those that try to correlate race and intelligence. Really? In the twenty first century you would believe there is a causal relationship between the two?
5. How about beauty? In the west, skinny has long been heralded as preferable in Africa they tend to prefer someone of a size consistent with eating "normal" portions but of course there are different preferences within; is straight hair better than kinky or curly hair?; are long legs really better than short ones? To some, the very concept that someone could look at someone who is shorter and more weighty and prefer them over a skinny tally is so completely alien that they might question the sanity of the person with this preference. At the end of the day though, beauty is only skin deep. I am a true believer in looking at the inside and judging people by who they are. When you allow yourself to get to know someone who turns out to be truly good-hearted you will tend to think they're beautiful on the outside regardless of what you initially thought.
6. The more subtle stereotypes are perhaps the most dangerous because you don't even realise the impact they are having - marketing dolls to just girls, trucks and football to little boys, boys don't cry and so forth. The different roles we associate with a given gender are mostly social constructs and this is so deeply embedded in the way we live that I don't know if it can be changed.
I hope I will always be open to revising my views, knowledge is so easy to obtain but understanding, truly understanding is not.
By Heather Katsonga-Woodward
I'm always thinking, debating, considering and revising my views - some of those deliberations will be shared right here.