June 7, 2002

IMF reportedly told Malawi to Sell Food

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has denied that it recommended the sale of Malawi's strategic maize reserves just before a crop failure occurred. President Bakili Muluzi declared a state of national disaster in April and has asked for $21m (22.6m Euros) in international assistance for food relief. Up to 76% of Malawians lack food and more than 300 people are reported to have died of hunger this year.

"We did not instruct the Malawi government or the NFRA (National Food Reserve Agency) to dispose of the reserves," the IMF representative in Malawi, Girma Begashaw, told Reuters news agency. "We have no expertise in food security policy."

Agriculture Minister Aleke Banda reportedly said in the beginning of June that the IMF had encouraged the government to sell at least part of the reserve in 2000 to reduce debt. "International donors have argued that we do not have to keep reserves at those (high) levels," Mr Banda told the BBC's World Business Report.

The IMF's Mr Begashaw countered that Malawi sold the maize after advice from a food consultant, hired by the government in a European Union funded project. He added that the country cut the reserve by two thirds on the basis of inaccurate crop estimates. "They thought they would have a good harvest in 2001, so they went ahead and sold all the 167,000 metric tonnes in the reserve," Mr Begashaw said. "They did not even keep the 60,000 tonnes that their own policy required them to keep," he said.

Finance Minister Friday Jumbe told Reuters a few days ago the government had been urged by the IMF and other donors to settle commercial debts. Malawi then sold the food reserve to pay off a one-year commercial loan taken in 1999 to establish the reserve, he added. Despite the food shortages, the IMF has suspended Malawi's poverty-reduction program until it cuts government spending in its budget in June.

Malawi produced more than two million tonnes of maize in 1999, a national record after free seed and agricultural goods were given to three million farmers. Mr Banda said the forecasts had predicted another bumper harvest from March 2001 but the crop failed. Mr Jumbe said the reserve was sold in the last six months of 2000 at an average loss of more than 50%. When news broke in January 2001 that the next crop would be well below average, prices jumped 400%. The government called on Monday, June 3 for tenders for 40,000 tonnes of locally grown maize to begin rebuilding the strategic reserve under an EU-financed project. Britain will be a major sponsor of this year's program to distribute free maize seeds and fertilizer to farmers, Mr Banda said on Wednesday, June 5.

Meanwhile, Stacia Nordin, a nutritionist based in the country, said that Malawi needs to shift its focus from maize to the abundance of "local" foods - many of them growing wild - if it wants to avert future food shortages and malnutrition. „It has been ingrained over the last 60 years that maize is food and there is nothing else. People think if they haven't eaten maize, they are 'hungry'," she said. She hopes to convince Malawians, donors and the government, to re-examine the dominance of this staple food. Nordin slammed media articles that poignantly described people eating wild food out of desperation as she believes that the reintroduction of these very foods is the answer to solving Malawi's food crisis and preventing malnutrition. She explained that Malawian's ate a variety of "old foods" before the arrival of maize with the Portuguese in the 1790s. Maize was also promoted as a crop by British colonialists and this was perpetuated by previous president Kamuzu Banda, who decided that "maize was the future and everybody had to plant it". "It was ingrained that other foods were bad and that Malawi was moving ahead by leaving the old foods," she said. "I explain to people that they don't need to have money to have a good diet ... This has been one of the better education years because of the hunger. People are realising that the system of just focusing on maize doesn't work," she said. (THE NEWS; IRIN)

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