By MICHAEL WINES
(Bureau Chief with the New York Times in South Africa)
Published: December 7, 2005
BLANTYRE, Malawi – Here in Malawi’s second city and in the capital, Lilongwe, it is hard to find an office building without some benevolent organization come to help Malawi’s throngs of poor.
The United Nations is here in force. The British are omnipresent in this, their former colony. Some major charities occupy two floors in Lilongwe office blocks. Malawi may be destitute – in 2001, the average earnings were less than 50 cents a day – but commercial real estate is thriving.
It makes one wonder why, with so many experts here to do good, the rest of the country not only isn’t thriving, but is slipping backward.
Since 1981, the United States Agency for International Development said in a troubling report in September, outsiders have sought to fix Malawi’s ills through more than 20 economic adjustment programs devised by the World Bank and eight related loans from the International Monetary Fund. International charities poured in countless private dollars. Overseas development assistance – foreign aid – totals about $35 per person, and makes up $8 of every $10 spent on economic development.
Yet despite that, the report states, only Yemen, Ethiopia and Burundi have worse rates of chronic malnutrition than does Malawi, where 49 percent of all children are stunted. Moreover, that rate has not improved for 15 years.
Malawi is now suffering through one of the worst hunger emergencies in Africa. The ostensible cause is drought. The real reason, however, is worsening poverty. Many of the 12 million or so people are now so poor that they have nothing to fall back on in good times, much less bad ones.
By most appearances, neither legions of charity workers nor phalanxes of money-toting economic structural adjusters have done much except, perhaps, to prevent stunting among even more malnourished children.
Malawi’s decline is a long and tangled story. The British set up tea and tobacco plantations in what was then called Nyasaland, taking peasants off their own land to grow more profitable crops. After the British left in 1964, an avaricious dictatorship expanded the plantations, leaving farmers with ever-smaller plots. By 1988, 8 in 10 farmers cultivated less than three acres of land – hardly enough to live on, much less make a profit.
A major drought ravaged those small farmers in 1992, and every effort to revive them has failed or, often, backfired. Families have increasingly resorted to casual labor to survive, further reducing the time they have to tend their own tiny fields, forcing them to sell off crucial assets like cattle to buy food.
In theory, all this is reversible. “Technically, we know what to do,” Suresh Babu, a senior researcher at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said in an interview. “We know how to prevent this crisis, to put them on a long-term path of development.”
Mr. Babu knows: from 1989 to 1994, he advised Malawi’s government and the United Nations on food issues. But practically, Mr. Babu says, Malawi’s problems are intractable. International organizations and Malawi leaders disagree over anti-poverty strategies.
Government corruption siphons money and will. Global charities compete for their own pet projects, rather than cooperating on an integrated plan. Malawi hasn’t the money or political consensus to do what is needed on its own.
Take irrigation: Amid drought, a gigantic freshwater lake runs virtually the entire length of eastern Malawi, enough water to saturate millions of now-parched acres. Yet only 2 percent of Malawi’s arable land is irrigated. Virtually all of that grows cash crops like tobacco and sugar cane, not the corn that all Malawians eat.
The government wants to extend water to small farmers, but lacks money. So charities build local irrigation projects, but when they finish and leave, the projects fall apart for lack of maintenance and expertise.
Why doesn’t Malawi train its own experts to improve agriculture? It did: Mr. Babu says he trained 450 experts in food policy and nutrition during his five years there. But “when I go back, I don’t see them,” he says: about 150 have died, many victims of AIDS. Others left the government for better-paying jobs in global charities or the United Nations.
That, say Mr. Babu and others, is central to the problem.
Malawi and its kin lack the capacity – skilled managers and policy makers, good roads and machinery, investors and entrepreneurs – to sustain any effort to climb out of poverty. So outsiders take up the task, often with conflicting aims and shortterm success, often to the government’s dismay.
Such examples barely describe the difficulties attending African poverty. Books have been written on this topic. Many, with titles like “The Road to Hell” and “Lords of Poverty,” lay the blame for third-world squalor at the feet of foreigners who want to end it.
There is even a hilarious poem demonizing “the development set”:
We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting.
If only the solution to Malawi’s agony were as simple as punishing craven charities, however. Most people here want to do good, and succeed in the short run. But to many, this is a Salvation Army without a general, marching in different directions while poverty and pestilence pillage the civilians.
Seed is available, but without irrigation. Irrigation ditches are dug, but without fertilizer. Water, seed and fertilizer are donated, but the farmer is dying of AIDS. A healthy farmer raises a crop, but government grain policies make him sell his corn for a pittance.
A farmer sells his crop, but thousands in this densely populated country face similar hurdles, and stumble.
“The money being poured into Malawi is huge,” said Sylvester Kalonge, the Malawi coordinator for food security and emergencies for CARE International. “But it’s not holistic. CARE has holistic programs, but how much geographic coverage can they have? So the impact is localized, and maybe the impact will be washed away in a few years’ time, and things will be worse.”
And so Mr. Kalonge and his fellow saviors in the global aid network labor against the latest hunger crisis.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “We keep people alive.”
By MICHAEL WINES