In 2002, five million of the 13 million residents of Malawi, a predominantly rural African country the size of Pennsylvania, were starving. Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and a number of rich countries that Malawi depends upon for aid (including the U.S.), pressured this tiny landlocked country to eliminate fertilizer and seed subsidies for its populace, even though the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. Desperate to feed their families, landowners could not afford to let their land lie fallow, so they planted without fertilizer, further stressing an already depleted soil. Over time, their depleted lands yielded less and less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty. By 2005, the country’s corn production was only 2.5 billion metric tons – the lowest in a decade.
The World Bank and Malawi’s donor countries, in their infinite wisdom, encouraged Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely and adhere, instead, to free market policies. The theory was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food. I’m no genius, but I don’t see the sense in growing cash crops for export in a country where the people can’t even feed themselves. That doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that Malawi lacks the necessary infrastructure, funds, and trained workforce required to effect the movement of such crops, much less the ability to control the corruption that would undoubtedly skim a large chunk of the profits from such a venture.
Fortunately, Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, decided to follow what the West practiced rather than what it preached. He reinstated fertilizer and seed subsidies, which helped farmers produce record-breaking corn harvests in 2006 and 2007, topping 3.4 billion metric tons in 2007. Malawi is now selling more corn to the United Nations World Food Program than any other country in southern Africa and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons to its devastated neighbor, Zimbabwe. Malawi even waved off a three-ton donation of powdered milk last month, telling the United Nations Children’s Fund to ship it to Uganda instead.
Since 2002, the United States has shipped $147 million worth of food to Malawi as emergency relief, but has only provided $53 million to help Malawi grow its own food, and has not provided any financial support for the new subsidy program. Over the years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has focused on promoting the role of the private sector in delivering fertilizer and seed, and saw subsidies as undermining that effort. Alan Eastham, the American ambassador to Malawi, said in a recent interview that the subsidy program had worked “pretty well,” though it displaced some commercial fertilizer sales.
Ahem. I repeat, AHEM. I smelled a rat, so I looked up USAID on the Internet and here’s what I found, copied directly from their website:
“USAID is an independent federal government agency that receives overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State. Our work supports long-term and equitable economic growth and advances U.S. foreign policy objectives by supporting economic growth, agriculture and trade; global health; and, democracy, conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance. We work in close partnership with private voluntary organizations, indigenous organizations, universities, American businesses, international agencies, other governments, and other U.S. government agencies. USAID has working relationships with more than 3,500 American companies and over 300 U.S.-based private voluntary organizations.”
Perhaps I am cynical or jaded, but this reeks of an agency that puts the profitability of American corporations ahead of the basic humanitarian needs of a starving nation. Grow cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food indeed! What a bunch of hogwash. And thank goodness President Bingu wa Mutharika had the courage to defy a world donor community that is at best, ill-informed, and at worst, corrupt and self-serving.