Food Crisis in Malawi: Who is to Blame? Sabyasachi Mitra

Malawi is in the grip of an acute food crisis that has affected more than 8 million of its 11 million people. On May 31, 2002, Malawian President Bakili Muluzi told parliament that up to 3.2 million Malawians will require food aid until March next year.

The main reason for the food famine is the decision taken by the Muluzi government in August 2000 to sell the country’s entire staple maize reserves of 167,000 tonnes. Even the 60,000 tonnes that the government is mandated to maintain was sold off. To make things worse, widespread floods destroyed the maize crop in 2000-01, leaving Malawi with virtually no stocks to feed its population. This year, the country is facing a severe drought.

The IMF stands accused of forcing the government to sell its reserves. While the IMF is laying the blame on Malawi’s optimistic predictions of a good harvest in 2001, Aleke Banda, Malawi’s Agriculture Minister, and some Western aid agencies, including the Save the Children Fund, have blamed the IMF and Western donors for the famine-like situation in Malawi. Secretary for Agriculture, Ellard Malindi, has estimated that approximately 75 per cent of Malawi’s rural families is short of sufficient food.

Malawi is among the world’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). The aim of the HIPC Initiative is to reduce to “sustainable levels” the debt burden of poor countries that demonstrate “sound economic and social policy reforms”, and thereby provide a lasting solution to the debt crisis. However, the conditionalities that the IMF-World Bank attaches to debt relief have led to the worsening of the economic crisis, rather than alleviating it.

In 2000 and 2001, the country sold 28,000 tonnes of maize to Kenya, while another 139,000 was offloaded in the domestic market at prices varying between 3 and 7 Kenyan Shillings (K1 = 1.435 US cents) a kg. Now, the country is faced with a situation of having to import maize at three times the price.

Malawi was forced to sell maize to Kenya to service an outstanding World Bank loan. In addition the Bank has been encouraging Malawi’s government to keep foreign exchange in its coffers, instead of grain, which the bank argues could lose value. Unfortunately for Malawi, in periods of shortage, it is grain prices that soar, and foreign exchange, in fact, actually loses value. Now, in a desperate attempt to shore up foreign exchange reserves, Malawi has decided to ignore the global anti-smoking campaign led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and step up tobacco cultivation. “As long as there is no substantial alternative for our forex generation, Malawi will continue relying on tobacco and we will encourage our farmers to keep on growing the ‘gold leaf’,” said Malawi’s Deputy Agriculture Minister, Andrew Chioza.

Malawi consumes an estimated 2 million metric tonnes of maize a year. In normal years the country grows enough maize to meet the demand, with small farmers accounting for over 90 per cent of the country’s maize production. But floods in 2000-01 and drought this year have resulted in a sharp drop in the maize output. Just 1.7 million metric tonnes of maize was harvested in 2001. This year’s maize production is expected to be an estimated 1.539 million tonnes, 10 per cent less than last year’s. The actual production may be even lower because farmers across the country are eating green maize to counter hunger. Malawi has stocks of an estimated 1.721 million tonnes against a national requirement of 2.206 million tonnes, leaving a gaping import requirement of 485,000 tonnes.

Malawians are at the mercy of private traders who are selling maize in the domestic market for as much as K30 per kg. The situation is most desperate in the southern and central regions of Malawi. Prices there have gone up by 600 per cent, putting maize out of reach of the poor. A 50 kg bag of maize, which lasts an average family between three and four weeks, is being sold at over US$ 20. Even in good times, the weekly income of a rural family is the equivalent of US$ 5.

A survey by Africare in Mzimba district has found that farmers are spending most of their time looking for ways to earn money to buy food. Their fields are being left unattended, and the coming harvest is expected to fall far short of self-sufficiency yet again. There is strong evidence that rural communities are sliding into poverty, making distress sales of livestock, firewood and charcoal. Once the tradition of kasuma (food-for-work) was a common coping mechanism in the rural areas during times of shortage. But the system has broken down and prices of local non-food commodities and wages have dropped by about 50 per cent.

As people leave their homes in search of food, concerns about the breakdown of the social structure are growing. The numbers of street children are rising and anecdotal evidence reveals that women and children are increasingly turning to prostitution. This will inevitably boost the HIV infection rate, which already stands at 20 per cent. Meanwhile, hospitals are reporting outbreaks of cholera.

Strict structural adjustment conditions imposed by the IMF-World Bank have negatively affected health services, education and agriculture in Malawi. The country has been forced to outsource, privatise, or liquidate several services and agencies under its four largest ministries, Health and Population, Education, Transport and Public Works, and Agriculture and Irrigation. Rising costs of these facilities are preventing the poor from using them.

The privatisation of health facilities has led to huge hikes in the cost of treatment. Similarly, the rising cost of education is preventing the poor from educating their children. With the withdrawal of the government from public works, non-agricultural work opportunities in rural Malawi have diminished, putting further pressure on agriculture. But with the government cutting back on spending in irrigation and agriculture and corporations taking over control of the primary sector, the traditional ‘parking lot’ of the poor, the move is towards more capital intensive farming techniques, and shrinking employment opportunities in the rural.

The government’s problems are mounting. Even as Malawi battles with food shortages, the IMF has decided to withhold the disbursement of US$ 47 million in aid to the country (part of a promised US$ 55 million package), saying lack of good governance has resulted in a misallocation of resources, increased the cost of doing business, created a general distrust in public sector activities, and weakened civil service morale.” The IMF has said that it would not release the money unless the government cuts spending and implements a new budget by July 2002. Britain, the largest donor country in Malawi, has also withheld the first tranche of a three-year US$ 109 million loan until the IMF approves the government’s budget.

In a country where almost 20 per cent of children die before the age of five, life expectancy is only 40 years, female literacy is 33 per cent, and only 44 per cent of the rural population have access to safe drinking water, a far more pragmatic approach is needed to mitigate the miseries of the population. The intrusive role that the IMF and the World Bank are playing in the economic and political processes in Malawi is part of the disease, not the doctor.