Malawi's current food crisis is not just the product of drought, but also market-based agricultural reforms urged by western donors that have inadvertently undermined food security, according to a new report by a Washington-based research institute.
Eleni Gabre-Madhin, a research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said donor agencies including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), had urged the government to reduce its role in the production and distribution of food without assuring the emergence of a private sector strong enough to fill the resulting gap.
"You now have a situation where neither the government nor the private sector is in place to provide what is necessary," said the recently-published report.
Gebre-Madhin, who spent two years surveying 1,400 Malawian farmers and traders to determine whether poor communities had benefited from policy changes, said the roots of the crisis go back to reforms adopted by Malawi at the behest of the IMF and the Bank.
While seeds and fertiliser have become more available, credit to buy them is mostly inaccessible to small-scale farmers, while rural roads have deteriorated and transportation costs are very high. As a result, it was cheaper to ship corn from Kansas to the nearest port than from one end of Malawi to the other.
"The majority of farmers feel worse-off since the reforms," the report said.
Private companies and traders that emerged as a result of the closure of state commodity boards were too small and too weak to provide the services and infrastructure needed to deal with shocks such as the current drought. In addition, donors steadily reduced funding during the 1990s for rural development, especially roads and other transportation networks, and agricultural research and extension systems.
The percentage of the World Bank's lending portfolio devoted to agriculture, for example, fell from 40 percent to seven percent over the past 20 years, the report noted.
"Investments in rural infrastructure have all but dried up," said IFPRI's director Per Pinstrup-Andersen in the report. "There has to be a greater focus on rural areas, because that is where the poor reside."
IPFRI is part of a consortium of agricultural research centres around the world that are closely tied to the World Bank, the world's biggest source of development finance.
Over three million people are in need of food aid in Malawi. To escape a repeat of the current crisis, the country needs to overhaul land and water management practices and use drought-tolerant crops, Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Country Representative Louise Setshwaelo told IRIN.
"Unless action is taken quickly, to enable the farmers to resume production, restore and strengthen their ability to feed themselves and the rest of us on a sustainable basis, we are all at risk of starvation," she said at the launch of a US $400,000 emergency Targeted Input Programme (TIP) aimed at reaching 50,000 farming families during this winter season.
Under the regular TIP programme, farmers receive free fertiliser and seed enough to plant in 0.1 hectare of land. It is a scaled-down version of the "starter pack" scheme that initially reached 2.8 million farmers when it was launched in 1998/1999. The programme was repeated in 1999/2000 and helped Malawi produce a bumper 2.3 million mt maize harvest.
Donors ended the starter pack scheme in preference for TIPs, which targets the poorest 1.5 million farmers.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions