Seeking Solace in a Conflict Zone: Malawi’s Desperate Bid for Jobs Drives Citizens to Israel

Malawi recently announced that it intends to send 5000 workers to Israel to take up jobs as agricultural workers. There has been a considerable amount of backlash along with negative media coverage regarding the story over the last few days. We are looking at an initial figure of around 5,000, that’s what we are targeting…

Malawi recently announced that it intends to send 5000 workers to Israel to take up jobs as agricultural workers. There has been a considerable amount of backlash along with negative media coverage regarding the story over the last few days.

We are looking at an initial figure of around 5,000, that’s what we are targeting now. Others [Malawians] have been there for more than five years and we’re just adding to those figures. This has been happening in Malawi for decades and we’ve been exporting young people to countries in Africa and outside Africa.

Malawi Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu (BBC)

The citizens of Malawi going to work in Israel will share a percentage of their earnings with the government – the official statement did not specify what that split will look like. What the official comunication does say is that workers will have enough to cover their “living cost in Israel, while the remainder will be remitted to personal accounts in Malawi to boost foreign exchange.”

Israel reportedly assured Malawi that the workers would be safe since they are working in unaffected zones? Israel has lost thousands of workers because of the war. In early November, Al Jazeera reported that Israel sent thousands of Palestines back to Gaza. It seems many of those were working in agriculture as well:

Israel previously issued more than 18,000 permits allowing Gaza Palestinians to cross into Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank to take jobs in sectors such as agriculture or construction. However, the system has been scrapped, as Israel has reversed its previous policy of offering economic incentives for stability and instead mounted a combined air and ground offensive to eradicate Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that controls Gaza.

Israel sends thousands of cross-border Palestinian workers back to Gaza | Al Jazeera

Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said as many as 40,000 workers have left the country’s farms since the conflict broke out, making it necessary to fill that gap.

Are there any other Malawi-Israel relations informing this?

Given the backlash that the story received since it aired along with the governments claims that this has been going on for decades – a good starting point would be exploring if there’s an existing relationship between the two countries as stated. An official government site for Israel echoes this history noting that when Israel’s relations with African states began to sour in the 70s, Malawi stood by them:

Israel and Malawi enjoy a warm historical relationship. Nyasaland, as Malawi was known before its independence, granted refuge to persecuted Jews during the Holocaust. Moreover, Malawi is one of the few countries in Africa that has had continuous warm ties with Israel since 1964, and did not sever these relations in the 70s when many African countries cut their diplomatic ties with Israel.

Embassy of Israel in Nairobi site

Malawi’s High Commission site goes a step further noting that the two countries have signed an MoU which indeed includes agriculture;

The two countries [Malawi and Israel] have signed a memorandum of understanding on technical cooperation encompassing several sectors, including education, agriculture and irrigation.

Malawi High Commission 

Beyond this particular agreement Israel sends a lot of aid to Malawi, most recently sending a $60 million aid package to support Malawi’s economic recovery. Given that Malawi is experiencing severe foreign currency shortages this kind of aid is probably vital if the country is to avoid worsening an already dire situation. In June, the central bank of Malawi indicated that forex reserves were nearly empty – a situation so drastic there wasn’t enough currency to cover a month of imports.

Interestingly, Malawi’s electorate voted David Bisnowaty (b.1996) to their National Assemble in 2014. Bisnowaty spent many years as a child in Africa because his father worked there. He says the formative experiences made him passionate about Africa and he moved to Malawi in 1994 (aged 28). He argued that the reason he could even win in an election was because of Malawi-Jewish relations;

Malawians love Jews and Israel. Malawi has always had very strong ties with Israel, even during the dictator’s era (a reference to the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s time in power between 1966 and 1994). Israel was the first country to send doctors and agricultural people to Malawi unconditionally.

David Bisnowaty | Israeli-Born Malawi Parliament Member: Actions, Not Words, Will Change Africa for the Better (2016/theAlgemeiner)

When the Malawian Information Minister said the country was already sending people to Israel there is evidence to support this and Bisnowaty was tied to this. In 2021, Malawi announced that it would be sending 200 citizens to undergo agricultural training in Israel. This particular program was started in 2014 and was attributed to the influence of Bisnowaty. The traveling expenses were taken care of by Smart Travel Agent (headed at the time by Bisnowaty’s son).

In 2020, Malawi made history by announcing that it would open its first ever embassy in Israel, and that it would be located in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. Malawi became the first African country to make such a decision, following the example of the United States and Guatemala. Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera said that this was a “bold and significant step” that reflected the strong friendship and shared values between the two nations. He also expressed his hope that this would enhance the bilateral cooperation and benefit both peoples.

As recently as March this year, IsraAid + American Jewish Community (AJC) in March 2023 provided aid to the tune of $50,000 to battle effects of Cyclone Freddy induced Cholera outbreaks. In that donation AJC also emphasised Malawi’s shared history with Israel:

AJC has historically had a strong connection to Malawi. This is a country that has a positive disposition toward the West, the U.S. and Israel. There is a strong people-to-people connection and a more diplomatic connection between Malawi and AJC

Wayne Sussman, director of AJC’s Africa Institute

All this to say – the two countries are pretty close. The next question, to explore was why Malawi would be interested in sending citizens to Israel and how common it is that countries do that (particularly during conflict periods). Under normal circumstances going to Israel would be a seemingly attractive proposition for the average Malawian.

Malawi’s employment overview

So yes – the countries are close but this doesn’t change that this appears to be an extreme resolution. I say that because whilst the government claims they have had such an agreement in place for years – it’s hard to find any reporting on it and even the details of this particular arrangement appear to be shrouded in secrecy suggesting that the government knows this doesn’t look too good. So what would push a country to this seeming extreme?

We looked at employment details from Malawi’s 2018 census and managed to gather the following. The country has around 9 million people of working age. From these 9 million, we extrapolated from labour force statistics that around 58.7% are working as Malawi’s census reports that 81.5% of their 6.6 million people labour force is currently employed. All this means at that time around 41.3% of the working age population is unemployed.

We turned to World Bank reporting to determine how many people in the country are earning above the global poverty line (above $3.65/day) and it gets grimmer with 89.1% of Malawians earning less than $3.65/day. The 2015 United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) ranked Malawi 173rd out of 186 countries. Within this context you begin to see why some Malawians still see this arrangement as an opportunity rather than a death sentence. Africa News reported, “hundreds of people have queued outside a hotel in the Malawi capital this week for a chance to work in Israel, wary of the war but willing to face the dangers to escape their own country’s woes.” Between Malawi’s poor economic performance, extreme poverty rates, natural disasters and the fallout from geopolitical events such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict – the country and citizens have been put between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

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