Sunday, December 02, 2007

People Before Profits

The New York Times carries an interesting story about Malawi and food production in that country .

A senior civil servant in the Malawi's Agriculture Ministry, said the President told his advisers, “Our people are poor because they lack the resources to use the soil and the water we have.”

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention , pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely. Its theory both times was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food . The removal of subsidies had led to exorbitant fertilizer prices in African countries, but that the bank itself had often failed to recognize that improving Africa’s declining soil quality was essential to lifting food production. Over time, their depleted plots yielded less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty.

“The rest of the world is fed because of the use of good seed and inorganic fertilizer, full stop,” said Stephen Carr, who has lived in Malawi since 1989, when he retired as the World Bank’s principal agriculturalist in sub-Saharan Africa. “This technology has not been used in most of Africa. The only way you can help farmers gain access to it is to give it away free or subsidize it heavily.” [Free access , is of course what Socialist Banner advocates to resources ]
Farmers explain Malawi’s extraordinary turnaround with one word: fertilizer.
Contrasted with the disastrous corn harvest in 2005 when almost five million Malawi's 13 million people needed emergency food aid , farmers produce record-breaking corn harvests in 2006 and 2007, according to government crop estimates. Corn production leapt to 2.7 million metric tons in 2006 and 3.4 million in 2007 from 1.2 million in 2005 . Instead of receiving charity , Malawi is feeding its hungry neighbors.

It is selling more corn to the World Food Program of the United Nations than any other country in southern Africa and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to Zimbabwe. In Malawi itself, the prevalence of acute child hunger has fallen sharply. In October, the United Nations Children’s Fund sent three tons of powdered milk, stockpiled here to treat severely malnourished children, to Uganda instead. The bumper harvests also helped the poor in Malawi by lowering food prices and increasing wages for its farm workers.

Farmers in Malawi’s southern and central regions said fertilizer had greatly improved their ability to fill their bellies with nsima, the thick, cornmeal porridge that is Malawi’s staff of life.

The United States, which has shipped $147 million worth of American food to Malawi as emergency relief since 2002, but only $53 million to help Malawi grow its own food, has not provided any financial support for the fertilizer subsidy program. United States Agency for International Development has focused on promoting the role of the private sector in delivering fertilizer and seed, and saw subsidies as undermining that effort. The World Bank criticized the government for not having a strategy to eventually end the fertilizer subsidies .

The government moved this year to give its people a more direct hand in their distribution.
Villagers in Chembe gathered one recent morning under the spreading arms of a kachere tree to decide who most needed fertilizer coupons as the planting season loomed. They had only enough for 19 of the village’s 53 families.
“Ladies and gentlemen, should we start with the elderly or the orphans?” asked Samuel Dama, a representative of the Chembe clan. Men led the assembly, but women sitting on the ground at their feet called out almost all the names of the neediest, gesturing to families rearing children orphaned by AIDS or caring for toothless elders.

For Socialist Banner this is an indication of what is possible when people are permitted to take control of their own lives and put need before the profits demanded by world capitalism . A new world is indeed possible .

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