John Vidal: A disaster waiting to
Ben Wisner: Famine in
Drought Emergency, Yes...Drought Disaster, No
Guardian Unlimited - Analysis
A disaster waiting to happen
This year thousands of Malawians will starve to death. This much we know. So why is so
little food aid being sent, and so late?
Friday May 3, 2002
Malawi, one of the world's poorest, most indebted and Aids-ravaged countries, faces famine
in some areas and a humanitarian catastrophe later in the year. Following drought and
floods, up to two million people classed as the ultra poor have eaten little food in many
months and can expect to harvest nothing for almost a year. Elsewhere in the country, a
very poor staple maize crop is being harvested which will provide only temporary respite.
The government, after denying an emergency even existed until late February, says a few
hundred people have died from hunger-related illnesses. But local churches and the
partners of western charities say the figure is probably 10,000 and that up to 100 people
may be dying daily.
On the ground in some areas there is evidence of widespread destitution and malnutrition
among subsistence farmers. However, precise information is scant and assessment teams are
trying urgently to contact people in remote villages.
The United Nations and the government estimate from official harvest returns that Malawi
will need 600,000-700,000 tonnes of food this year. The UN World Food Programme is alarmed
and is preparing to buy large quantities; a consortium of local and international groups
has been set up to distribute food, and charities are starting to import grain.
The United States, which has the world's major food surpluses, will take the lead and is
expected to send 100,000 tonnes of maize. Britain has given £5m directly to
non-governmental groups and £250,000 to the European Union. The Dutch have offered a
similar amount and other countries, such as Japan and Canada, will be asked to pledge food
next month. The onus will be on governments because international NGOs are unlikely to
raise enough cash to provide food and seeds for more than 500,000 people.
But it will take until September or beyond before large quantities reach Malawi and longer
still to get to the most needy. Malawi is landlocked, its rural roads are appalling and
conditions will be exacerbated by richer neighbouring countries, which also face serious
shortages, trying to buy supplies, too. The region is expected to need 2m tonnes.
Malawi's crisis fits into a pattern. Since the Irish famines 150 years ago, the first rule
of responses to great food shortages is that they come slow and late. In this case, the
Malawian government, donor countries and the mass of Malawi's subsistence farmers have
known for up to six months that a crisis was inevitable.
Save the Children (UK) has been flagging it since October and its nutrition surveys in
January and March were ignored. More than six weeks ago, 23 groups wrote to the
government, saying: "Every day that passes without a response to this crisis is a
death sentence to hundreds."
Like many food emergencies, Malawi's crisis is also heavily influenced by international
politics. NGOs and the government accuse the International Monetary Fund and donor
countries of forcing it to sell its food reserves last year, both for ideological and
Malawi is under pressure to meet IMF targets and reduce spending. It had been costing the
government more than £3m a year to store almost 200,000 tonnes of food, much of which was
said to be deteriorating. The donors, backed by the IMF, said only 60,000 tonnes was
needed as a strategic reserve, but the government then sold all but 4,000 tonnes without
refilling its silos.
But the subtext of the donor pressure to sell was to enforce liberalisation of the grain
market on Malawi. When the country later asked donor countries for help to replenish
reserves, they refused on the grounds that Malawi would not show them exactly where the
money raised from the food sales had gone.
The implication was that there had been corruption, although two investigations have yet
to report. Meanwhile, the government was forced to take a $35m foreign bank loan to import
135,000 tonnes of maize, of which less than half has arrived. The net result has been very
high maize prices at exactly the time that reserves, whose prices can be controlled, are
Last week, the IMF refused to allow Malawi debt relief, saying that any money for food
security must come from further budget cuts, although not from education or health. For
its part, the EU is causing consternation by refusing to offer more than a £32m relief
package. It argues that there is enough food in Malawi to feed people for the moment, that
not enough data on needs is available and the problem is a matter of "artificial
Officials say that food aid is undignified, gives political weight to the donors and
further distorts the market. They want to buy 30,000 tonnes of food on the local market in
the hope that this will force prices down and let them replenish Malawi's reserves. The
best reponse, argues the EU, would be to give the poorest money to buy food, or at least
give them work to provide them with the means to buy it.
Its approach is unpopular with the charities and local groups, which say the EU is out of
touch with reality, and being driven by economic dogma. They argue that, whether or not
its analysis is correct, it is trying to prove a point with people's lives and the only
moral response is to give generously now.
Privately, the donors despair that Malawi is governed by a small elite which has tied up
the economy and has done little to help the very poor. It is almost certain, they say,
that trading cartels linked to senior politicians are determining food prices now and, in
the words of one senior diplomat, "the very rich are screwing the very poor".
But world bodies and the west have been overseeing Malawi's economy for 20 years and have
utterly failed to improve the lot of the poorest. Unless determined action is taken now
and the lessons of past famines are applied to the people of Malawi, their plight may yet
shock the world.
John Vidal is the Guardian's environment editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Famine in Malawi
By Ben Wisner, email@example.com
Ninety per cent of Malawi's 11 million population live
by subsistence agriculture in the countryside. This country, like all of southern Africa,
began its third year of drought in 2002 in some parts of the country, and was also still
recovering from 2001 floods in other areas. Malawi is landlocked, highly indebted, and
among the least developed by U.N. standards. There were early warnings by aid
organizations of a famine on the scale of Ethiopia's tragedy in 1984, or an earlier famine
that elderly Malawians may remember from 1948. Piecing reports from agencies working in
rural areas together, as many as 10,000 people, mostly the weak - children, the aged,
people living with AIDS - may already have died by May 2002. The World Food Programme
estimated that up to three million were at risk, that 70% of the population was
affected, and that Malawi would require 600,000 tonnes of food to finish up 2002.
HIV-AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhea, and an epidemic of cholera further weakened the
population during 2002, intensifying the health consequences of hunger. The cholera
epidemic is the worst in the history of Malawi, with 32,968 cases reported and 980 deaths
by 7 April, 2002. Many AIDS orphans and those living with HIV already had poor
nutrition even before this current crisis. In some parts of the country elephants and
hippopotami have invaded irrigated plots in search of food, and some people have also been
forced by desperation to steal food from fields. Where farmers have been successful in
growing some maize and protecting it from animal or human thieves, hunger has forced them
to harvest it before it is mature.
Malawi has attempted to follow a Post War development model as a path to both economic and
human development. In the past it exported labor to the South African mines (highly prized
as 'tropicals' who could tolerate the heat in the deepest mine shafts) who remitted
income. It exports tea. Its government has attempted to implement a World Bank structural
adjustment package aimed at stream lining government expenditure. However, much of the
rural population remains isolated, without basic services, and at the mercy of an
uncontrolled market through which the price of maize (the staple food crop) has increased
by 400% . This put purchase of food - even when hungry farmers sell off all their
assets, including livestock, and even the roof timbers of their houses in 'distress sales'
- beyond the reach of most of the hungry. It is the failure of the government to intervene
and control the staple food price and to import food in a timely manner, and to maintain a
strategic reserve against such contingencies, that defines this event as a famine and not
merely a 'food emergency'. In 2001 donors had told Malawi that it was inefficient to keep
a large emergency reserve of food, so the government sold off 160,000 tonnes of maize and
did not renew that supply.
When drought on this scale last affected southern Africa in 1991, there was a rare moment
in which cooperation among all the affected countries, including South Africa, provided a
window through which food aid poured in a remarkably efficient way. During the recovery
period in the early 1990s numerous NGOs developed projects to build drought coping
capacity. The transport infrastructure, communications, and political cooperation of the
neighboring countries at that time seemed a good example of the kind of regional
resilience that development can provide in the face of disaster. This time around the
countries are in the grip of an every more serious epidemic of HIV-AIDS, electoral
democracy is under serious pressure in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, and local
institutions of the state are very weak .
Perhaps because of concerns with national executive capacity and accountability donor
response to the appeal for food was weaker than it was in 1991. The World Food Programme
was already feeding 2.6 million people in southern Africa in March 2002, when it appealed
for U.S.$69 million for this emergency. By the end of April it had received pledges of
only $3 million .
Notes and References
 Vidal, J., 2002a '"I think this is the last year that I live": Malawi Faces
Famine, and Agencies Struggle to Cope as Aid Dribbles in', Guardian Weekly (May 9-15), p.
22, and other cited sources. See also, Vidal, J., 2002b. 'A Disaster Waiting to Happen',
Guardian On-Line, 3 May http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4406336,00.html
 World Food Programme, 2002a. 'Hunger in southern Africa: The unfolding crisis,' 4 May http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/a0a9e3696651222bc1256bb2002b1937?OpenDocument
 World Health Organisation, 2002. 'Cholera situation in Malawi', 24 April http://wwww.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/7be8106c56177c16c1256bab005834bc?OpenDocument
 International Federation of Red Cross and Red
Crescent Societies, 2002. 'Federation to target aids-affected as food crisis worsens in
southern Africa', Geneva/Harare, 2 May 2002 http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/122dedb13e10e07c85256bad005969d3?OpenDocument
 World Food Programme, 2002b. 'WFP Emergency Report No. 19 of 2002', 10 May http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/480fa8736b88bbc3c12564f6004c8ad5/df89fe80e501dcba85256bb50062c4cf?OpenDocument
 However, in an act reminiscent of the solidarity shown in 1991, neighboring Tanzania
did donate 2,000 tonnes of maize to Malawi (Agence France-Presse (AFP), 2002a. 'Famine in
southern Africa worsening: experts', 12 May
 Agence France-Presse (AFP), 2002b. 'Tanzania
donates 2,000 tonnes of maize to famine-hit Malawi', 28 March
Emergency, Yes...Drought Disaster, No: Southern Africa 1991-93 by Ailsa
Holloway in Kelman and Koukis (2000)
"While diplomatic dividends can indeed flow from
disaster relief efforts, in this instance, joint cooperation was only possible once
potential military, economic, and other forms of regional confrontation that dominated the
1980s had been controlled."
Disaster Diplomacy www.disasterdiplomacy.org
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