How Malawi fed its own people
Friday, 20 April 2012 00:00
Jeffrey D Sachs
President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi died on April 5 of a heart attack at the age of 78. His countrymen, suffering a massive economic crisis, seem to have declared good riddance. Reuters tartly noted that the seven-year boom under Mutharika was “underpinned by foreign aid and some favourable rains,” and that the boom had come to an end last year following a diplomatic spat with the donor community. As is usually the case with Africa, the truth is far more complex. President Mutharika made a great contribution to his country and to Africa even if he is held in disgrace for serious misdeeds in his last years.
Mutharika had indeed engineered a boom, but it was not due to foreign aid and good rains. It was due to his readiness to stand up to the arrogance of the foreign aid “community.” Mutharika won a crucial battle in 2005 when his country faced a drought and famine.
Instead of following the standard donor advice essentially to do nothing and await a ration of emergency food aid, Mutharika used his country’s meagre budget to support Malawi’s peasant farmers through the Farm Input Subsidy Program. In a very short period of time, one growing season, Mutharika’s policies doubled Malawi’s food production and helped to put Africa more generally on a new path of development.
Malawi’s population has soared beyond the carrying capacity of the land.
[Here we go again. People aren't antilopes, Jeffrey. In fact, Malawi has been so starved of development that they could probably suppport a population of 100 million, if more water was stored on the land instead of flowing into Lake Malawi. If you look at the evidence presented here, and see the massive turnaround in agriculture because of a mere $62 million spent on fertilizer support, that alone should make it clear that the number of people is not the problem - actively de-developing Malawi through destructive economic policies imposed from outside Malawi by the World Bank and IMF are. - MrK]
Many farms are one to two hectares, or even smaller, for a family of five or more. Powerful and often foreign owners hold the larger tobacco estates.
[So much for the 'carrying capacity' argument. Land in the hands of few large land owners, used to grow anything but food. Get a hint? - MrK]
Aids began to ravage Malawi, along with the rest of southern Africa, starting in the 1980s and 1990s.
[Actually there is no AIDS epidemic, anywhere in the world. It is a statistically generated disease, based on bad testing and survey methods. The idea of a widespread AIDS epidemic and it's attendant presumed (based on calculation of HIV infection) high mortality rate is belied by high population growth statistics throughout the continent. - MrK]
As a landlocked country, Malawi faces profound challenges of high transport costs. It cannot attract investments in assembly operations — such those required for garments, plastics or electronics — as can other poor but coastal economies.
[More economics drivel. Being landlocked and being host to much of Southern Africa's fresh water resources, doesn't merely present 'problems', it also presents massive opportunities in transportation, for instance. - MrK]
A dozen years ago, at the start of the new millennium, Malawi’s extreme suffering was pretty much ignored by the world. Aids, malaria, TB, hunger, extreme poverty and one of the world’s lowest life expectancies (46 years in the period 1995-2000, according to the UN Population Division) wracked the land. The donor nations did little to help.
I began to visit Malawi in those years through my work as special adviser to Kofi Annan, UN secretary general at the time. I was shocked by the overflowing pediatric wards of hungry, malnourished and dying babies, and the adjoining adult wards filled with Aids patients without medicines in the central hospital, waiting to die an agonising death. I could hardly imagine this hellish scene as actually belonging to the 21st century.
I worked with the government of Malawi in 2001-3 to help the country become one of the first recipients of the new Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria that I helped to design and that was finally opened for business in 2002. Yet the donors fought bitterly, and alas successfully, to keep Malawi’s early programs very small, in some ghastly exercise of budgetary prudence. Countless Malawians continued to die unnecessarily as a result of this penny-pinching.
In 2004, Mutharika was elected president. He entered office with a drought already under way. Yet as my colleague and World Food Prize winner Dr Pedro Sanchez explained to me, the drought was not only a rainfall drought, but also a nitrogen drought.
[This is typical economist nonsense. Anyone familiar with Malawi's green lush mountainsides knows there is no 'nitrogen drought'. What is there, is an adherence to old, chemically based agriculture, as opposed to 'modern' (and yet ancient) organic agriculture. In fact smaller 1-2 hectare plots are ideal for organic agriculture, especially Natural Farming and Permaculture. And as always, the more hands the merrier. - MrK]
Malawi’s impoverished farmers were too poor to buy fertiliser, and their intensive farming over many years had depleted the soils of nitrogen, with a consequence that the farm yields were among the lowest in the world. Tiny farms, unstable rainfall, an epidemic-ravaged population and nitrogen-depleted soils all spelled a silent holocaust. And yet the world continued to stand by. — The New York Times.
[Lesson: leave Malawi's development to the Malawis, and get the IMF/WB and their 'conditionalities', economic sanctions and phantom epidemics out of the way. - MrK]
Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of “The Price of Civilisation.”