Friday, 13 April 2012

Hunger in Malawi

Remember back in October when everyone was saying Malawi's fuel shortages and diplomatic spats wouldn't affect food security? Okay, it was mainly the government saying that but they were wrong. Shortages pushed up the price of the staple food, maize, by more than 60 per cent in just four months during 2011. Then there was a drought. Now it appears close to 300 000 Malawians, most of whom are farming-dependent rural households, are going to need food aid to survive until the harvest and, given the poor rains, probably until next year's harvest in March 2013.

The thing with directly farming-dependent poor households - i.e. most of Southern Africa and a good 60 per cent of Malawi - is that hunger can be something of a delayed reaction. When the shortages and price-hikes occur, the rural or farming-dependent poor are still eating the previous year's harvests. Urban-poor are likely to be affected almost immediately because they buy food every day or every few days - which also makes it easier to figure out what is causing the problem and raise funds for a quick response. But poor people who farm usually eat a good portion of their food from what they grow, and the portion of their food that comes from their own farming activities increases when food prices spike because they can't afford the things they used to buy. But that also means they eat what they would normally plant* (or at least some of it). Which means that they plant less in the year when prices are high and bought food is inaccessible.Which, in turn, means the household will have less to eat the following year and less to sell in order to buy other things to eat (and etc.).


When that planting is ruined - by drought or floods or because the input (e.g. seeds and fertiliser) programme that used to make their farming productive was cut when donor aid dried up - they're stuck. They can't eat what they grow because their harvest failed. They can't sell what they invested all their labour in producing because their crop failed. They used up most of their farming reserves the previous year trying to get by on only what they had grown.

So these farming-dependent poor households feel the impact of shortages and price hikes and donor fund withdrawal at a time when they're most vulnerable, least able to cope. They also experience it six months to a year later than everyone else - at the next planting or harvest time. In a situation of mild volatility, this could, conceivably, have a smoothing effect. But food prices in Southern Africa haven't shown much tendency to go back down. Spike upon spike pushes prices ever higher and higher. Farming-dependent poor households face all the increases as one giant increase at a time when they have nothing to trade for the food that they need. The pattern is predictable and pretty much inevitable (barring sudden miraculous food price drops - wouldn't that be nice?). So, question: why don't price spikes and shortages automatically trigger programmes to protect the farming assets of farming-dependent poor households?

*the same applies to livestock, except for the planting - eating a chicken, for example, means less eggs to eat in the future, etc.

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