Life | The Perfect Famine

The Danish government is closing down its embassy in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi. The British government has withdrawn its aid package. The World Bank has made clear its concerns. And now, to add to Malawi’s woes, it’s at the epicentre of what’s threatening to become a major famine in the Southern Africa region, with the World Food Programme declaring it a food emergency area.

While there’s no outright starvation yet, families are resorting to traditional famine strategies – including abandoning villages, stealing crops, and eating next year’s seed corn. As a New York Times journalist described it, it has all the ingredients of ‘the perfect famine’. Yet Malawi – despite recent droughts – is a green land that should be able to feed itself. Much of the problem, claim critics, derives from poor governance, the suppression of critical voices and the sale of last year’s maize reserves in allegedly dishonest circumstances. Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit, most people thought foreign aid would lift the world’s poor out of absolute poverty.

They argued that the end of the old Empires – and Cold War conflicts – meant that politics wouldn’t interfere anymore. But since Rio, there’s a growing consensus that it’s the policies of the poor countries themselves that too often stand in the way of development. And with dramatic changes in countries from China and India to Mozambique and Tanzania, that no longer means too much centralized planning, or economic isolationism. What it does mean is that bureaucracy, inefficiency, and plain dishonesty and corruption are the main obstacles to sustainable development. This Life programme looks at the role of what’s known as ‘governance’ through one African example – with interviews with development experts and economists discussing the issues worldwide. It asks how the rich countries help the world’s poor – without rewarding unaccountable regimes, or creating charges of neo-colonial interference in their affairs.

famine 3The “Perfect Famine” is the kind of famine that happens when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, either because of natural disasters or because of the activities of man. That’s what is happening in the southern African country of Malawi, where bad weather, poor governance, and probably profiteering have combined to create a desperate situation. Nurse Sister Modesta visits a village where she has heard that some of the families are running out of food. She knows the most vulnerable are the very young and the very old. “This one, he says he’s a father of five children and he’s unable to look after them because even him himself has nothing to eat, even to feed the children. He felt bad because of the wife and the children. They have nothing.” They are living off maize husk which is usually only given to animals and chickens.

With a little rain the fields would be green and fertile. Farmers Charles Chawanthat explains: “Two, three, four, five years back the rain was good and we were, we were yielding much. Having no much crops in our area, the result is famine and hunger wherever.”

Collins Magalasi of the Malawian Economic Justice Network says that it is a real problem. “The figure that we are hearing now are exceeding over one thousand now of people who have died simply because they didn’t have anything to eat. So the question of hunger in Malawi is real. We had, of course, drought just before planting started. But then a few months later we had flooding and this flooding covered seven districts of the country, which happened to be the most productive districts.”

But weather is only the first cause of the food shortage in Malawi. It’s also man-made. Local NGOs say the government followed the advice of some Western donors to liberalise markets and let fertiliser prices soar to levels many farmers just couldn’t afford. Worse still, last year – before it became obvious how bad the harvest was going to be – the government of Malawi sold off most of the country’s National Grain Reserve.

famine 1Robert Jamieson, Editor of the Lilongwe Chronicle: “I think the problem is mainly a political one, one of strategic planning – or lack of strategic planning. We are meant to have strategic grain reserves in this country. Every year we develop it and we keep stocks to allow us to go through our lean months. Unfortunately those stocks were sold off and were not replenished – if they were replenished I don’t think we’d be in the same position that we’re in today.”

EU Commissioner Poul Nielson is also critical: “We did not advise the government to sell the grain from that reserve and it looks a little short-sighted – to put it mildly – to have done it.” Some big aid donors to Malawi are also concerned about allegations of dishonesty and tampering with the constitution. The Danes have even pulled out altogether, closing down their embassy. Some donors like the EU have made future aid conditional on assurances of good governance.

Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University believes this is quite reasonable: “If you’re going to say that we require that there be some indication that stuff is really going to be use to vaccinate children and not to buy furniture for the minister’s palace, fine – I don’t really think that’s a hard issue. I think it’s not that hard, given what we now know, to direct most of the aid in a way that actually does some good.”

famine 2Veteran economist J K Galbraith believes that bad governance can justify international intervention. “When a country is destroying its own people, – starving them, denying them any of the fruits of development or progress – one has to examine the concepts of sovereignty; the defence of sovereignty, which can be useful, good in allowing people to have their rights to govern themselves, but can also be a defence for dictators and rascals… if a population is suffering, then there’s a justification for intervention.”

Some on the US Right, like Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, believe in rigorous non-intervention: “The worst thing you can do is to allow a person to ignore the folly of their ways, because then they’ll just be foolish in the future.”

Malawians themselves like Collins Magalasi don’t like being dependent on aid. “My wish is to see Malawi move out of this pathetic poverty. I just have a vision that maybe one day, one time we might have a country that is: 1) free of poverty; 2) with leaders – technicians that are accountable to Malawians, not accountable to outsiders; and 3) a country that is self-sustaining.”

In the meantime, people are dying, and Sister Modesta says that food has just got to come from somewhere. “Since this hunger started I have never seen a truck from the government leaving maize. If nothing is coming these people are going to die. That’s why everybody’s scared.”


Malawi Here has news and information about Malawi, as does AFROL and Malawi.Com. The weekly Chronicle doesn’t have a website, but The Nation does. You can also visit the official website of the Malawi government.

For a description of the Malawi famine, see Hope Builders International and the Friends of Malawi website. Other accounts are available from Christian Aid, Save the Children and ActionAid.

Read an account of the life and works of J K Galbraith, and visit the website of columnist and academic Paul Krugman – and his Unofficial website. There’s also Fred Smith’s Competitive Enterprise Institute, which believes that private ownership will solve all environmental problems and dismisses global warming as ‘alarmist’.

Visit UNEP’s website pages on the Summit. The World Bank also has special webpages devoted to the Summit.

The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) of the International Labour Organisation, UN Habitat, and the European Commission Directorate General for Development to promote better understanding of development issues, all helped with the preparation of this programme.

For more information on the Johannesburg Summit, visit the website of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and the Host Country’s special website on the meeting. The Earth Summit 2002 Stakeholder Forum website is covering NGO participation and providing a running commentary on negotiations and links to other relevant sites.


Films in this series

Life | Cheated of Childhood

Looks at the lives of street children in St Petersburg, victims of the econ ...
Life | Danger – Children at Work!

Looks at the dangerous and unrewarding firecracker cottage industry, which ...
Life | It Takes a Village

Illustrates an experiment in community participation - a village in Banglad ...
Life | Kosovo: Rebuilding the Dream

Investigates the problems of re-establishing property rights after the conf ...
Life | Patents and Patients

Canvasses the issues of availability to, and funding of, HIV/AIDS drugs in ...
Life | Seeing is Believing

Examines the Zambian sugar fortification project, which hopes to eliminate ...
Life | Sowing Seeds of Hunger

Explores the effects of the African AIDS crisis in the lives of ordinary pe ...
Life | The Doctor’s Story

How US aid administration policy means withdrawing aid from vital women's h ...
Life | The Perfect Famine

Looks at the concept of 'governance' through one African example - impendin ...
Life | The Road from Rio

Made in the runup to the 2002 Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Developmen ...
Life | The Trade Trap

Current thinking is for poor countries to trade their way out of poverty, b ...
Life | Up in Smoke

In the southern African country of Malawi, tobacco is the major export crop ...