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In Malawi, Many to Blame for Food Crisis - 2002-05-27

Southern Africa is suffering from a food shortage of crisis proportions. According to the United Nations, Malawi is one of the worst affected. Many people blame two years of alternating drought and flooding. But the story is more complicated than that. It also involves government mismanagement and well-intentioned but poorly timed advice from international donors.

The food crisis in Malawi caught many people by surprise, in the government and the international community. In the words of one foreign aid worker, it simply never occurred to them that people could actually starve to death in Malawi.

The countryside is lush and green. Malawi is a far cry from the near-desert landscapes of Ethiopia, Somalia or Sudan, where farmers battle to grow crops in barren soil, and famine is a constant threat. And yet the people of Malawi are calling this the year of "chinkukuzi." In the local Chichewa language it means, "nobody will survive."

Malawi has previously experienced food shortages after worse droughts in 1992 and 1949. Even so, people who are old enough to remember say the hungry season has never been so bad.

An elderly woman has brought her severely malnourished great-grandchildren to a hospital in the village of Nampuma for help. She says even the hunger of 1949 cannot compare to this one. This year, she says, the situation is far worse because we have absolutely no food. She says back then, I do not remember too many people dying. But this year, she says, I have seen many people dying of hunger.

Roughly 70 percent of the Malawi population, about eight million people, rely on subsistence farming. For the past two years, harvests have been so bad that normal coping strategies have been stretched to the limit. Bad weather has contributed to the problem, but it is far from the only reason for the crisis.

Another factor was a gradual reduction in the government's subsidies to farmers. The soil in Malawi is exhausted from over-farming, and the staple crop, maize, generally will not grow without fertilizer. But at the prompting of international donors such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the government cut back on the amount of free fertilizer and hybrid seeds it distributed over the last two years. The idea was to reduce farmers' dependence on government handouts and to spur growth in the private sector market.

But many impoverished subsistence farmers in Malawi could not afford to buy fertilizer and seeds on their own. And most could not borrow money to buy them either, because the interest rate on loans from commercial banks is incredibly high - about 55 percent.

Without seeds and fertilizer, and without adequate rainfall, many crops withered in the field.

"When it was time for planting last year, we did not have any seeds,' said Dorothy Dembo, 21, as she holds her emaciated nine-month-old daughter, Evelesi, on her lap. "When we got a small amount of maize seed, we were so hungry that we ate it instead of planting it. So we are still hungry because we had no crops to harvest."

"The situation is bad," said Ellard Malindi, permanent secretary of the Malawi agriculture ministry." It's gotten worse this year because there have been two consecutive years of bad production. And for this particular year, the first point is that there was not much carryover stocks from the previous year. There was nothing in the ... Strategic Grain Reserve."

That is the third aspect of the problem. Normally, Malawi's Strategic Grain Reserve would help meet a shortfall in its annual grain harvest. But to its surprise, the government last year discovered the grain reserve was empty.

That, too, had something to do with the World Bank and the IMF. The agencies had earlier concluded that Malawi could not afford to keep such large grain stocks, some 167,000 tons. They suggested that the government reduce the reserves to around 60,000 tons.

The government thought it was doing exactly that. But without anyone realizing it, the grain marketing board sold off all of Malawi's grain reserve, instead of just some of it. Nobody can yet account for the money, and two separate investigations have been launched to uncover exactly what happened.

The government suddenly realized the extent of the problem in August, and tried to import grain to meet the country's needs. But because of transportation problems and a regional maize shortage, Malawi could not get as much at it needed.

The shortfall caused a spike in grain prices on the domestic market. Practically overnight, the price of maize more than quadrupled. All of a sudden, Malawians found themselves unable to afford their staple food.

Many people were forced to scrounge for wild food. For months, they survived on banana stems, tree roots and even, in some places, by harvesting grass seeds.

Malawi appealed to the international community for help, but donors were slow to respond. Some demanded an explanation of what happened to the grain reserve before they would provide any more aid.

Slowly, the crisis has gotten the world's attention, and help has started to arrive. But the World Food Program says it is still far short of its fundraising target.

For now, the situation has gotten better for many Malawians because the yearly harvest has come in. But that does not mean the crisis is over. This year's harvest was even worse than last year's, and probably will not last more than a few months at most. In addition, many people had nothing to harvest at all.

And so the respite from the food shortage is likely to be brief. Without immediate international assistance, aid agencies are predicting the situation will be even worse when this year's harvest runs out in July or August.