Vanishing grain yield trips up attempts at renewal
By STEPHANIE NOLEN, The Globe and Mail
LILONGWE -- Njala. It is bearing down on Malawi like a freight train without brakes. The hunger, as they call it in southern Africa, will be here by August, September at the latest. And everyone knows this.
The harvest of corn, the staple crop on which most people in this desperately poor country survive, has not been good. This means that instead of running out of food next March or April, as she would normally do, Judith Kacheta will have nothing to feed her children by autumn.
Her youngest child, a three-year-old girl named Tisiyana, has bony little limbs and eyes that ooze green pus. Come the fall, she may have nothing more to eat than grass and flour pounded from banana roots.
"We have only two bags of maize," Ms. Kacheta said, waiting with her two daughters at an emergency feeding centre in Chitedze, a small town near Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. "This can't last four months."
Up before dawn, Ms. Kacheta has walked five kilometres with one of the girls on her back and the other in her arms. Hundreds of other mothers and children have done the same, waiting three hours in a field for a one-kilogram scoop of high-protein soy mixed with cornmeal.
"What can I do?" Ms. Kacheta asks before balancing the bag of soy on her head and picking up her children for the long walk home.
Like most of southern Africa, Malawi is facing a famine. But it did not have to be this way. And that has international donors fuming.
To be sure, there were some natural causes for the food shortage, including floods last year and inadequate rain this year. But many relief and development experts believe it was people, the ones who sit in Malawi's parliament and work in its posh cabinet offices, who got the country into this mess.
Last year, as the food crisis began, the government sold its national grain reserve -- all 167,000 metric tonnes -- for dubious reasons and with disastrous consequence. It also kept up a spending spree, mostly on presidential travel, luxury cars and lavish office expenses. But despite the loss of one large aid package, and threats of more cutbacks, President Bakiri Muluzi has refused to bend. Once a successful businessman, he is even manoeuvring to override the constitution and secure a third term in office.
"It's a lack of political commitment, rather than a lack of understanding," said Girma Begashaw, an Ethiopian who is the International Monetary Fund's representative to Malawi.
When the leaders of the Group of Eight nations meet next week in Kananaskis, Alta., to consider a new approach to development in Africa, such problems of governance will be front and centre. After providing decades of aid to the continent with only mixed results, the most powerful leaders in the North are saying the governments themselves have to change.
And many Africans say they agree. A proposal submitted to the G8 countries by South Africa and Nigeria on behalf of the continent will ask for $100-billion a year in aid from the North in exchange for a new pledge by African countries to better police public life, to entrench democracy, protect human rights and offer a more transparent and accountable system of government. South African President Thabo Mbeki, Nigerian President Olegsegun Obasanjo and other key leaders will be on hand in Kananaskis to make the pitch in person.
Yet for all the talk of a new age for Africa, no African leader has said a word about the spectacularly bad governance that got Malawi, and several of its neighbours, into the current food crisis. According to the United Nations, at least 10 million people are at risk of starvation.
Zimbabwe's harvests are down drastically because of the seizure of large commercial farms by gangs connected to President Robert Mugabe's ruling party. In Angola, the government is widely believed to have siphoned oil revenues into its own accounts while neglecting struggling small farmers.
In Malawi, the food crisis is a classic illustration of the ailments of a weak African government, and of the clash between traditional values and new institutions created in the name of democracy.
Malawi is the fifth-poorest country in the world, its commercial activity limited to tobacco and tea farming. The per capita income is $265 a year, although the figure fluctuates substantially with the price of tobacco. An estimated 40 per cent of children suffer clinical malnutrition. And the widespread poverty is sharply exacerbated by the pandemic HIV/AIDS slashing its way through the adult population.
History can be blamed for part of this. After 73 years of British colonial rule, Malawi was handed over in 1964 to Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a bizarre anglophile despot who, among many edicts, ordered women to wear ankle-length skirts in all public places, including their fields. In 1971, he named himself president for life, and enjoyed unlimited power until his Cold War patrons in London and Washington turned their backs on him in the early 1990s.
But great damage had already been done. During his rule, Mr. Banda encouraged Malawians to grow corn at the expense of all other foods, even though corn is not a native crop and a large drain on soil nutrients. But he believed it was "progressive."
Malawi is also frequently cursed by the weather. In the last growing season, heavy rains washed out some fields. This year, other areas lacked sufficient rain, forcing many farmers to abandon their fields in favour of day-labour jobs. Compounding the problem, many local aid groups have blamed the government for cutting back on starter packs of seeds and fertilizer. The government complains that Western donors pushed the move because the packs "distorted the market."
All of this pales, though, against the saga of the grain reserves.
There are wildly differing accounts of why and how this happened, but the story seems to be this: An international consultant paid for by European donors recommended that the government reduce the stock, as grain reserves are costly to maintain and subject to spoilage. The consultant said Malawi needed to hold only 60,000 tonnes, or two months worth of basic food for the nation, for short-term emergencies.
Malawi's National Food Reserve Agency, which was created as a condition of a World Bank loan, went about selling the stock. But instead of a partial sale, it completely emptied the government's huge silos. Compounding the problem, much of the grain was sold on the local market, driving down corn prices to six cents a kilogram from 24 cents. So commercial farms cut back on their planting for this year because prices were not high enough to cover the cost of fertilizer.
Justin Malewezi, Malawi's Vice-President, said in an interview that all the corn was sold because of the food shortfall last year. That made it necessary to put even the last 60,000 tonnes on the market. "To accuse the government is not justified," Mr. Malewezi said, sitting in a red velvet chair in a reception room on Capital Hill, the incongruously modern seat of government.
This year's harvest is thought to have brought in only 1.5 million of the two million tonnes of corn Malawi consumes each year. But with the reserve silos now empty, the government has no money to buy more corn. And aid donors would like to know where the money went.
The consultant recommended the revenues from any sale go into a special cash reserve at the national bank, to be used in case of future shortages. Mr. Malewezi, on the other hand, said his government needed the money to pay off a huge loan from a South African bank that was used to provide capital for the National Food Reserve Agency. He said he did not know whether the loan was repaid. But Malawi's Finance Minister recently told local newspapers that the profits from the grain sale "disappeared."
The government's critics, and many donors, have another explanation. Rob and Pushpa Jamieson, who publish an independent national newspaper called The Chronicle, have tried to follow the trail of the grain revenue. They found the government sold the grain to dozens of companies, many of them newly registered firms owned by key figures in government. But the Jamiesons cannot trace the money any further.
"It went into [party] activities, it went to people in cabinet," said Mr. Jamieson, who for his pains was recently beaten up by a gang of thugs he believes are associated with the ruling United Democractic Front.
The government, which is carrying out its own audit, blames the mess on lousy instructions from the World Bank and IMF, the key players in a donor community that has pledged $1.6-billion in aid to Malawi over the past two years.
But Mr. Begashaw, the IMF representative, takes a very different view. "The party line is to blame it on someone else," he said, surveying the capital city from his office in the highest building in town. "They know they were caught with their pants down."
The IMF cut off its aid in December, 2000, after Malawi had committed itself to a series of economic reforms and then ignored them. The government, in the words of one Western diplomat, had started "spending like a drunken sailor."
The splurge was the last straw for the IMF, which had given out only $17-million when it suspended its $77-million loan. Since then, the government has turned to local banks and financial markets to borrow money, at about 50-per-cent interest a year, to cover everything from office expenses to corn purchases.
"The money just disappears," said Grant Hawes, the director of the Canadian International Development Agency in Malawi. "A recent World Bank study of public expenditures showed that more than 70 per cent of government funds are spent on Capital Hill."
For Mr. Bageshaw, who began his IMF posting here last October, the first economic numbers he saw were horrifying. He asked his staff to set up an urgent meeting with the President, who had served in the Banda cabinet but defeated his possibly senile predecessor in the country's first multiparty election in 1994.
Mr. Begashaw was desperate to explain what the spending and crippling interest rates were doing to the economy. "And my staff said to me, 'You don't need a meeting. He understands. He just doesn't care.' "
Today, the government has no clear plan to deal with the food shortfall, no safety nets in place for the vulnerable population and nowhere to get the money to buy more corn, other than from more extortionate private-sector loans.
While the major aid donors are no longer willing to underwrite a government they consider to be irresponsible, they are left scrambling to bring in more food and help save millions of lives, however clearly they may see the government's culpability.
All of this raises a fundamental question for the G8 as its members consider a big new aid package: Do they trust African governments?
A decade ago, a wave of democracy rolling across the continent was supposed to take care of those doubts, by holding decision-makers accountable to those affected by their decisions. In Malawi, people lined up to vote Mr. Banda, the president for life, out of office. Donors rushed to aid in the transition, and Malawi became the third-largest recipient of British development aid. But democracy cannot be said to have taken root.
"It's like something that fell from the sky for people," said Dawit Beyene, the director for Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief in Malawi, the group feeding Mrs. Kacheta's skinny children. "You can't expect it to go smoothly, because there is no culture of democracy. It needs to go much deeper into peoples' way of thinking, working, behaving, and so on."
For most Malawians, the traditional structures -- village headmen and a hierarchy of chiefs -- represent political legitimacy. Concepts such as parliament, the judiciary, perhaps even the nation itself have relatively little currency.
"The values that place support of family and village above all else still prevail," Mr. Hawes said. "The largesse goes to the winners: your obligations to people not from your village are very weak."
For some aid donors, the situation has become intolerable. The Danish government packed up and left last week, closing its aid projects because of official corruption. Britain, too, has suspended most of its disbursements.
But few others seem willing to follow. Canada, which disburses about $12-million a year in Malawi to support health, education and clean-water projects, considers the newly democratic Malawi a "priority country."
The United States, which holds the single biggest vote at the World Bank and the IMF, also appears to be sticking by Malawi's government. Mr. Muluzi is a Muslim, and the population of Muslims (officially registered at about 20 per cent) is said to have increased tenfold through conversions in the past decade.
What caught Washington's attention is the presence of Islamic aid donors, building new mosques, schools and water wells all over the country.
"The Americans won't be pulling out -- they like that Muluzi is a Muslim they can talk to," a European diplomat said. "And they don't like the idea of where the money may come from instead."
Mr. Malewezi puts a different spin on his country's troubles, and his government's alleged role in perpetuating them. "Governments do things wrong," he said, visibly frustrated.
Through experience, Malawi's system of governance is improving, he said, arguing that this is the time when a troubled government needs more help, not less. "It's embarrassing to ask for food. We want to grow our own. And if there was poor administration or bad management in this situation, it will be addressed."
Part Four: Continent's educated can no longer run things: They're dead or can't cope