July 29, 2004

Food security remains endangered / Highest unemployment record registered

Forty years after independence, Malawi is still unable to ensure food security for its population which is growing at a rate of 2 percent per year, according to the country's national statistical office. The World Development Movement (WDM), a London-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) which encourages policymakers to tackle the root causes of poverty, says the country's annual maize deficit stands at 630.000 metric tonnes, although the production of sorghum, millet and cassava (manioc) goes some way towards alleviating the effects of this deficit.

More than one million, or over 10 percent of Malawi's population, are facing starvation this year, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has announced before. To reduce their plight, the UN food agency said it would begin distributing food in August, and reach the target of more than one million people by early 2005. The WFP blames the food shortages on drought and flooding which it says have caused havoc on the country's farming sector. The problems have further been compounded by soil deterioration, lack of fertilisers and lack of good-quality seed and credit facilities, as well as poor roads and labour shortages. Charles Matabwa, head of Malawi's civil service, admits the southern African country has experienced serious food shortages in the past 10 years. "Consequently, the vicious cycle of household food insecurity has widened significantly over the last decade," he comments.

Critics say Malawi could have fared better if government had paid attention to its agricultural policies. Following six-consecutive years of hunger, government intervened in 2001 to import maize and distribute food aid. However, this led to unfavourable economic environment, characterised by unstable exchange rates, high interest and inflation rates following maize imports, which the country is still reeling from its effects. A statement by the national statistics office said that the shortage of maize continued to accelerate Malawi's year-on-year inflation, which is now standing at 11.6 percent. The ministry of agriculture has also noted that because of persistent food shortages at household level, Malawians have been forced to sell off some of their most important assets - such as livestock.

The WFP's report also pointed a finger at the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on agriculture. Accordingly, agricultural reforms were imposed on Malawi without the donors having undertaken a proper analysis of their potential impact and consequences, particularly on the poor. These reforms included the reduction of maize subsidies and also of price controls on the cereal. It singled out the privatisation of the government's grain stocks, for which it specifically blames the IMF. But the IMF defended its role in the food shortage, accusing the government of failing to organise a large enough grain reserve to see Malawi through the emergency. "The causes of food shortages in Malawi are complex, including lapses in the government's early warning systems, distortions in domestic markets, and mismanagement of food reserves," the organisation concluded.

In the meantime, it has also become known that Malawi is going to register the highest unemployment record ever, when the number of jobseekers entering the labour market will double from 200.000 annually to about 400.000 next year. According to statistics made available by the Technical Entrepreneur and Vocational Training Authority (TEVETA), out of the estimated 400.000 new jobseekers who will enter the labour market in 2005 only 35.000 people would secure wage employment in the formal sector. The Authority's Executive Director Johns Chafa, explained in an interview that the figures were alarming, and that it was one of government's major challenges. (Inter Press Service, Johannesburg / Malawi Standard, Blantyre)

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