Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Malawi food concern and non-solutions

This article appears on the Guardian Development website today: Could Malawi's empty grain stores signal return to the bad times?

The potential food crisis is very worrying and the fact that the devaluation has pushed already sky-high food and fuel prices up still further is a serious problem. Last year's July 20 protests were about food and fuel prices, as well as concerns about the way the country was being run. And, of course, the poorest, most vulnerable are likely to be the hardest hit by both high prices and poor productivity. 
Instead, the village of 300 subsistence farmers already knows that this year's "lean" season – the months before the main harvest – will be the worst in at least a decade.
A decade takes us back to the 2002 famine in Malawi. This is bad. The article isn't particularly clear, but it does suggest two reasons things aren't so bad after all: text messages and cattle. Wait... what?

Assuming for a moment that the kind of text message service that will be deployed is one to gather information, rather than the market-information service referred to in the article, market prices not being hugely useful to those who have harvested nothing. Text message services will make it easier to gather information about food shortages but they won't stop the shortages. While the famine in 2002 happened partly because information didn't flow to the centre early enough, it also happened because no-one believed the information. By 2005/2006, people had cellphones. The problem isn't information about pending food shortages (as evidenced by the very good information before and during the most recent Horn of Africa and Sahel crises that did not result in adequate response). WFP has appealed for $48m; the UK (Malawi's biggest donor) has pledged $4.5m. The fact that WFP feels the need to ask for $48m while the grain silos are full also suggests that the grain reserves of the country are far from enough to support the affected populations.

The agriculture and food security department, on the other hand, has identified livestock as the solution.
Launching a programme in Lilongwe this month to distribute livestock to villages in 28 hard-hit regions, [Minister Peter Mwanza] said he hoped the country would have enough to feed itself. "Last year the government diversified into cotton, but it did not do well. So now we are trying with livestock. We cannot rely on the rains these days, or one crop like maize any more. The areas traditionally hit by drought in the south are the ones which have been hit the hardest again," he said.
To be clear, livestock is a fundamentally important part of supporting smallholder farmer food security in Southern Africa. Livestock is good. But distributing livestock, especially large livestock, when a harvest has failed and households are already facing food insecurity is completely unfair to those who are supposed to benefit form the programme. Livestock compete with humans. Even if they don't compete for food, they compete for water. Drought-affected households should never be expected to take on the extra burden of livestock when they're already struggle to survive. It's madness. If households receive the livestock during times of plenty, livestock can help to build their asset base and make them more resilient to shocks in a myriad different ways. During a crisis, it simply makes them more vulnerable. One can only hope the push to place livestock right now is not a direct response to the US promise to support Malawian cattle breeding.

Grain reserves or not, it's going to be a tough season for farmers in Malawi. Wouldn't it be nice to see aid organisations working hard to protect the assets and productive livelihood strategies that already exist instead of pushing on them assets they can't support or becoming fixated with "innovation" and technology?

PS A picture of Hillary Clinton? Really Guardian?

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