/ 3 January 2006

Difficult year ahead for famine-hit Malawi

The year 2005 will go down in history as another difficult 12 months for the tiny, famine-stricken Southern African nation of Malawi.

More than 4,7-million Malawians, out of a population of 12-million, are experiencing food shortages, according to official statistics.

Malawi does not have enough food stocks to last until the next harvest in April 2006, aid agencies warn.

As Inter Press Service reported on April 11 2005, this was the sixth year in a row that hunger had struck Malawi. Aid agencies attribute the food shortages to drought and bad agricultural policies.

Hardest hit are women and children. Of the vulnerable population of 4,7-million, 2,2-million are children under 18 years and 750 000 children under five, according to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC), an umbrella of government and donor representatives.

In most parts of the country, snaking queues of women waiting to buy subsidised packets of maize, a staple food in Malawi, are a common sight. The most vulnerable depends on emergency food distributed by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and NGOs.

”I came here two days ago, but the truck transporting the maize got stuck in the mud due to heavy rains. We’ve no choice but to wait,” Cheulanda Chikadya, a mother of four, said at Mapazi, a suburb of Malawi’s commercial hub of Blantyre.

For many like Chikadya, the hunger has ruined the festive mood. Most families spent their Christmas without the usual big feasts and fanfare.

”Most households have no food. A bag of maize has become unaffordable,” said Stephanie Savariaud, information officer for the WFP.

The WFP says it plans to scale up its relief food distribution from 1,5-million people to 2,4-million by January 2006.

Civil society groups urged the government and donors to do more than providing emergency food aid if they hope to stave off the spectre of shortages in 2006 and beyond.

Mabvuto Bamusi, acting National Coordinator for the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a lobby group monitoring the impact of the state’s social and economic policies on the poor, urged the government to focus on long-term solutions such as irrigation and investment in the agricultural sector.

”Irrigation alone is not enough. It must be supported with a comprehensive input programme under which farmers receive seed and fertiliser before planting. So far, government’s planning has been disastrous,” Bamusi said.

Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe said the government plans to increase spending towards irrigation projects in its 2006/07 budget.

”The next budget will be more agricultural with emphasis on irrigation and dams. We are also looking at commercialisation of a good deal of the agricultural sector in 2006,” he said.

The 2005/06 budget had forecast an economic growth of 8,2%, depending on good weather conditions and an expected rebound in agricultural production.

During 2005, growth was eclipsed by food shortages and the Reserve Bank of Malawi estimated that real GDP declined by 2,2% during the first half of 2005.

”Economic growth for 2005 has been affected by the agricultural slump and high international oil prices, although a rebound is possible in 2006 depending on next year’s harvest,” said the Johannesburg-based Standard Bank Group in a year-end economic report for Malawi.

The food shortage and a general escalation of commodity prices due to high fuel prices pushed inflation to 16,2%, according to the country’s National Statistical Office. Landlocked Malawi is a net importer of fuel, and imports of relief food and fertiliser led to soaring levels of transport rates in recent months.

Gondwe remains optimistic that the growth target of 8,2% is still attainable in 2006 based on a large-scale investment in the fertiliser subsidy that government undertook in 2005. And increased allocation towards agriculture in the 2006/07 budget should help align the government towards achieving the growth target, he said.

”We should have a good farming year in 2006 after increasing spending for the fertiliser subsidy,” he said.

One notable achievement by President Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration in 2005 was to persuade donors to resume lending and aid, which they suspended in 2004 due to election-related spending and allegations of corruption under the former government of Bakili Muluzi.

On August 5, the executive board of International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) worth about $55-million to support the implementation of Malawi’s economic reform programmes.

The facility is the fund’s most concessional lending package for poor countries.

The IMF’s gesture signalled several of Malawi’s bilateral donors, which had previously severed economic ties with Lilongwe and withdrew aid on grounds of fiscal improprieties, to resume support.

To date, the IMF remains satisfied with the government’s management of public finances, according to a November 21 report of the fund’s assessment mission. — IPS