For Malawi NGOs, tough times only getting tougher

Longtime activist Emmie Chanika sits in front of her struggling NGO's new office. Like many groups in Malawi, financial constraints have pushed the group near to its breaking point. Photo by Travis Lupick.

Considering I was interviewing Emmie Chanika to learn about the financial hardships her NGO is experiencing, we couldn’t have met at a more appropriate time.

I found Chanika working in the rain outside of her old office in downtown Blantyre. The executive director for the Civil Liberties Committee (CILIC) had already loaded a truck with office equipment and files and was making final preparations for a move to a –shall we say– cozier space.

Running behind schedule, I jumped into the truck with Chanika and a couple of her colleagues and proceeded with my interview on the bumpy ride out to CILIC’s new headquarters in Mbayani, a neighbourhood just outside of the city’s Central Business District.

“Oh, you’re Canadian,” Chanika said. “You know, it’s a Canadian that is giving us this space for our office.”

I hadn’t known that.

Upon being contacted, my fellow countryman declined to allow for his name to appear in the media. But he made clear he felt that CILIC is an organization worth supporting.

“It is led by a very dynamic person,” he explained. “Over the years, Emmie Chanika has fought for many causes and not restricted her work to one segment of society. Black or white, she has been helping out everybody. She has given a lot of personal sacrifice.”

Back in the pickup truck, Chanika lamented that her Canadian friend’s organization is one of the few supporters CILIC has left. In Malawi, times are tough for NGOs.

“As an activist, my wings have been clipped,” Chanika said. “Civil Liberties Committee has been undermined by donors, government, and civil society. And because of that, we haven’t had funding for almost two years, going into the third year.”

It’s like there is a perfect storm working against NGO funding in Malawi, she explained to me. There is unnecessary competition for funds among nonprofits working in the country. Malawi’s economy is in a tailspin and chronic fuel shortages have resulted in soaring commodity prices.

And President Bingu wa Mutharika’s increasingly-autocratic leadership style has sent international donors running.

“Our organization’s funding problems began before Mutharika,” Chanika noted. “Our problems started with NGO-infighting and needless competition. And then Mutharika was able to come and take advantage of a situation already deteriorating.”

CILIC was formed in 1992, making it one of the oldest human rights organizations in the country. Not only was it was at the front of Malawi’s first marches for women’s rights in the late 1990s, but Chanika was also one of the founding members of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, an umbrella organization largely responsible for organizing the July 20, 2011 nationwide demonstrations against poor governance and economic mismanagement.

But today, CILIC is all but defunct, Chanika sighed. She and her employees still show up for work everyday, but increasingly, they are having to empty their own pockets to continue working.

“My husband, he asks, ‘Why don’t you just leave them?’” she recounted. “And I ask my husband, ‘What then would I do with my energies?’”

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