The Malawi Model
Privatization policies have been producing global famine. But one African country has prospered precisely by defying them.
The streets of Blantyre, the second largest city in Malawi, one of the poorest countries on Earth, certainly won’t remind anyone of Geneva–or even Cape Town. The narrow urban alleys, lined with squat, decaying buildings and cars pouring out diesel exhaust, teem with poor people. Some 700,000 live in low-rise shacks and the occasional colonial-style mansion. At intersections, packs of thin children sell copies of the local broadsheets or beg for change from foreign aid workers driving late model SUVs. Even the grounds of Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, a large medical center downtown, overflow with people: Unable to afford to stay inside the wards, patients and their families pitch temporary shelter on the hospital lawn.
But just outside the city, Malawi’s farms tell a different story. At the height of the country’s rainy season, farms are filled with shoulder-tall maize and ripening avocadoes. The farmers’ success is not a coincidence: After facing a famine four years ago that threatened one-third of the country’s 13 million people, around half of whom live in poverty, tiny Malawi has utilized a $60 million policy of state subsidies for agriculture to become a net grain exporter. Malawi has transformed itself from a ward of the international community into one of the most successful agricultural economies in southern Africa: The landlocked, geographically diverse country, covered in green rolling hills and dotted with freshwater lakes, now exports thousands of pounds of corn to neighboring, starving Zimbabwe, a nation once known as the breadbasket of the region.
State agriculture subsidies are hardly what the doctor–or, in this case, the international aid community and the World Food Program–ordered. But Malawi triumphed precisely by ignoring the world’s leading pro-privatization agricultural experts. In fact, the “Malawi model” could turn out to be one of the only African success stories in recent years. Yet few of its neighbors thus far have copied Malawi’s success: Most developing countries listened to the experts and privatized their agriculture, a decision that has resulted in food shortages across the developing world, as private traders have been unable to respond to food emergencies and governments have seen their food reserve stocks dwindle, leaving little staple foods left for emergencies. Indeed, global stocks of grain and other key commodities are plummeting: World wheat production fell dramatically between 2006 and 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The slow failure of developing-world food policy coincides with growing upward price pressures from the First World, where governments are diverting staple crops like corn from use for food to use for biofuels, aid organizations are dedicating less money to improving global agriculture, and expanded middle classes are requiring increased food production to support their meat-eating habits.
Even as the cost of staple foods rises, drought in some of the world’s leading agricultural regions threatens future production, a result of global warming and unpredictable climate patterns. And developed nations, facing their own financial crises, have become far less willing to help the developing world. As the Food and Agriculture Organization predicted, in classic bureaucrat-speak: “The possibility of further sharp price hikes and continued volatility as a result of unforeseen events seems to be likely for the next few [agricultural] seasons.” Meanwhile, the G-8 industrialized nations recently predicted that, if global food production does not double by 2050, it could severely threaten global stability. Unless the global aid community reverses its support of agricultural privatization and begins to cultivate Malawi-style state subsidies, this perfect storm of factors may transform localized food crises into an unprecedented global famine.
How Famine Happens
The possibility of a global food crisis long seemed unthinkable. After a series of developing-world famines in the 1960s was followed by the oil crisis, many nations vastly increased their food production through agricultural innovations like South Asia’s famous “Green Revolution,” which used new types of irrigation and plant varieties to increase farmers’ yields. By the late 1980s, with the return of cheap oil, the spread of efficiency-boosting agricultural technology, and low wheat prices thanks to the heavily subsidized U.S. agriculture market, food costs worldwide had plummeted.
With the cost of food low, famines like the deadly one in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s remained relatively localized; the international community, not overwhelmed by a global famine, was able to muster the resources to end famines when and where they occurred. And critically, global food production consistently kept pace with global population growth: According to one study by Britain’s Agriculture Department, between 1970 and 1990 the increase in the world’s food supply even outpaced the world’s population growth. As a result, many complacent countries slashed food stockpiles designed to be used in an emergency (in a developing country) or as aid to help other nations (in a developed country).
But over the past five years, Thomas Malthus has come back from the dead. As Asia’s giant economies expanded rapidly–until recently, China posted annual growth of more than 10 percent, and India wasn’t far behind–the world’s economic expansion picked up, and by 2004 global economic growth had surpassed food supply expansion. Throughout Asia, new middle classes shifted from traditional diets, which utilized small amounts of meat mixed with a starchy staple like rice, to a more heavily meat-oriented diet, which requires far more cultivation of land to support. China’s meat consumption has more than doubled since the mid-1980s; eating large quantities of meat has become a sign of wealth and prestige. Too much prestige, perhaps: On recent visits to China, I have seen KFCs employing bouncers to keep out ruthless crowds of chicken eaters pushing and shoving to get inside the doors.
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