Famine in Malawi

The Year Nobody Will Survive

Malawi Famine
Ester Paul (L) is treated for malnutrition in Lilongwe, Malawi, July 22, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The people of Malawi are calling this the year of chinkukuzi—or, in the country’s native Chichewa language, the year “nobody will survive.” In the weeks before the meager harvest earlier this year, families sold their assets to buy grain, those who had nothing to sell scoured the surroundings for wild food, and hundreds of people died of hunger. Today, 3.2 million Malawians—or roughly one-third of the population—still face starvation. But Malawi’s problems do not end there. AIDS is rampant: An estimated 20 percent of the population is infected with HIV. Aid workers are reporting the breakout of a cholera epidemic. And, according to the 2002 United Nations Human Development Report, at least 65 percent of Malawi's 10 million people live below the poverty line, earning less than US$1 a day.

Most accounts blame the famine on two years of severe drought. But the story is more complicated. Depending on whose version of the story one listens to, government mismanagement, corruption, bad advice from international donors, or some combination of the three, are also to blame for exacerbating the crisis. Yet as pundits argue about who is to blame, the fact remains that Malawi must import at least 560,000 metric tons of corn in order to keep much of its population from starving before the next harvest in March 2003.

It was perhaps with this in mind that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a US$23-million emergency credit—at 2.96 percent interest—to Malawi’s foreign reserves in order to help the country finance food imports. Announcing the decision on Sept. 3, IMF Managing Director Horst Köhler said, “Malawi is facing a serious food shortage…. Our emergency assistance is a step toward helping the nation deal with its current food needs.”

The IMF also said it would continue to withhold US$47 million that had been set aside for Malawi because of the Malawian government’s overspending, but would consider releasing the money in December if the government adhered to its economic targets.

This last bit of information, which figured less prominently in international news coverage, hints at Malawi’s often rocky relationship with international donors.

Earlier this year, the Danish government suspended US$87 million in aid to the country, citing concerns about the “weak administration” in Blantyre, its corruption, and political intolerance. In June 2002, Britain, the European Union (EU), and the United States suspended US$22 million in development aid because of allegations of widespread corruption. Two months later, the EU asked the Malawi government to return US$8 million in development aid because it allegedly mismanaged money earmarked for a road construction project.

Deadly Error

Many in Malawi and abroad are blaming the IMF for the famine. For two years, President Bakili Muluzi’s government has been following international lending institutions’ advice to cut farmers’ dependence on government handouts by restricting hybrid seed fertilizer handouts. But since the soil is exhausted from over-farming, Malawians cannot grow their staple corn without fertilizer, and crops have been withering in the field for lack of fertilizer or water.

Muluzi has also come under fire in Malawi for his handling of the country’s strategic grain reserves—the country's national food security backbone.

In May 2002, Muluzi’s Agriculture Minister Aleke Banda responded that the IMF had urged him to sell at least part of the reserve in 2000 to finance its debt, since grain reserves are costly to maintain and subject to spoilage. Banda said the IMF estimated that Malawi needed to keep only 60,000 tons of grain in reserve, enough to feed for the nation for two months in the case of a short-term emergency.

Girma Begashaw, the IMF representative in Malawi, strenuously denied the IMF had done anything of the sort, saying that it had been a consultant hired by the EU who had urged Malawi to sell its reserves.

In any case, Malawi's National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA), which was created as a condition of a 1999 World Bank loan, went about selling its reserves. But instead of selling only a portion of its emergency stock, the NFRA completely emptied the government's silos, only to buy much of the surplus back from South Africa… with another emergency US$30-million loan.

The dearth of grain sent domestic prices sky-high. Overnight, the price of corn more than quadrupled, leaving Malawians unable to afford their staple food.

At a July 2002 hearing before the British Parliament on the matter, Köhler amplified Begashaw’s earlier denials: "The IMF is not the scapegoat for everything,” he complained. “The advice [to sell the corn] was given by the World Bank and the European Union. It is plainly wrong to blame the IMF. Ask the World Bank and the EU what they did. The IMF was part of this process; the IMF may not have been attentive enough, but the decision was with the World Bank and the EU."

But Köhler also admitted, "In the past we have not given enough attention to poverty and social safety nets when proposing structural changes. But structural changes are always accompanied by dislocation. We must live with permanent change in order to achieve economic growth in developing countries.”

Corruption and Starvation

Whereas Köhler has cast blame on the World Bank and the EU, Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), which gets most of its funding from the World Bank and the EU, lays responsibility closer to home.

In an August 2002 report the ACB recommended that two Malawian cabinet ministers, former Minister of Agriculture Leonard Mangulama, who now has the Poverty Alleviation portfolio, and Minister of Finance and Economic Planning Friday Jumbe be tried for abuse of office and criminal negligence in the sale of Malawi’s grain reserves. The report also named several members of Parliament, who opportunistically profited from the sale.

But an August 2002 report from the Washington-based think-tank the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) cautioned that Malawi should not be blamed for following the advice of international aid agencies. The report found that the World Bank and the IMF had urged the Malawian government to reduce its role in the production and distribution of food, without having first sufficiently developed private production and distribution channels. Following a two-year survey of more than 1,000 Malawian farmers, the IFPRI concluded, “The majority of farmers feel worse off since the [government’s] reforms.”

Malawi Insider, an independent Pan-African newsletter based in Blantyre, agrees. In the Aug. 21 edition, Peter Banda, the newsletter’s editor, asked, "Why can't these financial institutions come in the open and say: We are sorry Malawi? Would this be the first time for them to make an apology to a developing country? Have they not done so before due to giving wrong structural adjustment program advice, which has brought more economic mess and misery to developing countries?” But others in Malawi’s press have argued that Malawians must share in the responsibility for their plight. In a June 17 commentary, Malawi Here, an online magazine based in Blantyre, sadly noted, “Whether the IMF was responsible for this famine or not, surely it is also our fault. We moan about the IMF, yet every year we are back at their door asking for more? If we can actually implement ‘good governance’ rather than just talking about it, won’t our problems go away? … Maybe we should look within to find a way to break the poverty trap, reducing our dependence on the scum of the IMF and World Bank.”