Tsunami in Asia, famine in Niger, hurricane in New Orleans, and an earthquake in Pakistan: the spate of international emergencies in 2005 led to donors being “shellshocked by a deluge of crises,” according to Peter Smerdon of the World Food Programme (WFP). No wonder, then, that a severe food shortage that will affect nearly half of Malawi’s 12 million people has gone unnoticed.

planeIn a country with less than one doctor per 100,000 people, which is ranked 177 out of 177 in the latest UN development index, and which has a HIV/AIDS infection rate of 14.4%, this is yet another disaster in a tumultuous series. There have been reports of children so desperate for food that they have died eating toxic roots, while others have been eaten by crocodiles when searching for river plants.

The food shortage is a result of a number of factors: endemic poverty, poor irrigation, chronic malnutrition, a dilapidated infrastructure and healthcare system, and, of course, AIDS. Malawi has experienced its worst harvest for over ten years due to long dry spells at the beginning of the rainy season. Subsequently, maize production fell by 24%. In a country where the saying ‘maize is life’ goes, the results have been disastrous.

The government, headed by President Bingu wa Mutharika, have long held a Strategic Grain Reserve for such a situation. They were ordered to sell off a small percentage of it by the World Bank to help pay off debts from the original purchase. Too much was sold, however, and many officials made a lot of money. President Mutharika spent £264,000 on a limousine. Consequently, there was very little left when the emergency came.

The government sells subsidised food and fertilizer (needed by 80% of the population), but with demand so high, prices have soared, leaving the poorest people unable to afford them.

In Malawi the best agricultural land is occupied by agricultural estates for cash crop farming, mainly tobacco. Inheritance traditions also mean that land is divided between siblings, meaning that the average arable landholding is 0.23 hectares. Many Malawians are thus at the mercy of the volatile market and are forced to work as casual labourers on estate land for as little as 29 cents per day. A kilo of maize costs about 26 cents and many cannot afford to feed themselves.

Malawi is the worst hit of six southern African countries, including Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Peter Smerdon denies that the food crisis is yet on the same scale as the famine in Niger in early 2005, but stresses that: “Unless donors step forward with cash contributions to plug WFP’s immediate shortfall of US$157 million, many people will not receive help in time.” Meanwhile, Mike Sackett, WFP Regional Director for Southern Africa, has stated that: “The children of southern Africa need help now – before their tiny emancipated bodies appear on television screens.”

Whilst, in situations such as this, short-term aid is crucial, there are some experts who believe that it creates a climate of dependency detrimental to future development. Professor Thomas Jayne, a world expert in international development from the Department of Agricultural Economics at Michigan State University is such a critic. He believes that the idea that it is the government’s role to provide people with food, a widespread perception in southern Africa, has prevented movements for long-term stability. Politicians favour populist methods of food production and distribution that are aimed at getting votes, but these are often expensive, quick-fix solutions. Jayne states that he has “personally heard some politicians say that the disbursement of agricultural credit needs to be controlled by government, otherwise many farmers would feel that they don’t need the government.”

A USAID think-piece on the food crisis in Malawi, written by Lawrence Rubey, outlines long-term solutions based on diversification in higher value crops. However, it highlights the political problems that these schemes encounter as politicians subsidise maize and nothing else because it is seen as popular and traditionally Malawian. Maize is therefore favoured by the farmers in place of more economically viable options.

With so much discussion in 2005 about making poverty history, it sadly appears we may still have a long wait until Chris Martin’s dream is realised.

Owen Walker

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