hiding the message: "why people starve"

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Fri Jul 11 18:21:41 MDT 2003

when i was a kid, i was raised on a steady diet of the Sunday New York
Times. along with white fish and chopped liver and tongue and sharp
table-side political talk at grandma's house on Sundays, the Times was
a staple of a young mind eager to know what adults toiled at.

but times change, and so does the Times. an article in this Sunday's
paper is a case in point:


in a 9 page piece entitled "why people starve", the author Barry
Bearak purports to tell us __why__ people starve by looking at the
case of Malawi.:

   To track the origins of the crisis, my plan was this: to find a
   family that had lost someone to last year's hunger and then work my
   way back through the hows and whys.

and we are promised some heady material:

   It [the article's plan] extends toward wealthier nations and their
   shared institutions -- the World Bank and the International
   Monetary Fund. It travels the uncertain ups and downs of global
   commodity prices and currency valuations -- and of course passes
   into the limited access roads of humanity's conscience.

And in typical NYTimes style, we are treated to pictures of individual
starving people, life stories of Malawi inhabitants, and a breezy
travelogue-style narration of "one man's journey to solve the mystery
of famine" (my caricature):

   The first, Bomba Kamchewere, is a tall, bony man with a missing
   front tooth

   Malawi has stunning skies, with a blue so bright and clouds so
   shapely that they seem to be the work of a cartoonist.

alas, i search the 7780 word article with a gnawing feeling of hunger
for signs of the promised "why". in fact, i find only two sentences
that have any kind of explanatory power to them:

   Tobacco is Malawi's only major cash crop, and the doctor amassed a
   fortune by granting himself valuable licenses to grow it.

   The West applauded his steadfast anti-Communism; South Africa
   admired his tolerance of apartheid.

but nothing really to sink one's teeth into. And in the end, Bearak
spends two paragraphs on the case of some farmer (Daniel) in Malawi
who is doing better than most, wondering why the guy doesn't pitch in
and help his neighbors more. Bearak then continues:

   For me, Daniel came to represent the ''haves'' of the world.

For me, the whole article came to represent by its emptiness a line
from a popular TV commercial from the 70's (80's???): WHERE'S THE

Interestingly enough, the Times online today also has an article
entitled "Universities to Share Patented Work on Crops", and on a
hunch i entered the words "Malawi food patents" into google's hungry
search engine. And up pops enough information to fill an entire
lifetime's subscription to the Sunday Times.

In case Bearak reads the Web, i've included a slim selection of
google's bountiful harvest below.

les schaffer



  Malawi incidentally is faced with famine after it was forced to sell
  maize to earn dollars for debt servicing


  Patents deny farmers the right to save seed as they have been doing
  for hundreds of years and instead forces them to buy it from a
  multinational company. That's why it is important that international
  patenting laws should be stopped.


  As most of the food aid arriving Malawi is of US origin, and
  therefore without guarantee of being without genetically modified
  (GM) grains, it needs to be milled before it is distributed. This
  will cost the poverty-ridden country an extra US$ 20 million, the
  government disclosed.


  Findings include:

    The immediate trigger for the food crisis was localised flooding
    in February and March 2002 but the underlying reasons were mainly
    political and economic.

    Rigid and prescriptive IMF and donor-led economic policies and
    practices compounded government planning, policy and
    implementation failures.

    There was limited investment in the rural economy, 70 per cent of
    Malawians live in rural areas.

    Little thought was given by major donors to the impact of economic
    liberalisation on the lives of poor rural families.

    The Malawian government pushed through the commercialisation of
    the agricultural sector with inadequate support being given to the
    most vulnerable.

  A series of damaging miscalculations by the Malawian government and
  donors aggravated long-term policy failures. These were:

    The strategic grain reserve, Malawi's buffer against famine, was
    sold off in its entirety.

    Private traders were effectively allowed to profiteer from the
    sale of the grain reserve, buying maize cheaply and hoarding it
    until prices rose before reselling it for exorbitant profits.

    Rationing was imposed without any form of identification system
    being put in place and was therefore open to abuse. The other key
    component of the famine was the strain on relations between donors
    and the Malawian government because of allegations of economic
    mismanagement and governance failures. This fatally delayed
    donors' response to the food crisis just as food shortages were
    beginning to bite.


  Example 1: Malawi is an African country with limited arable land and
  a big population. While the majority of the population is engaged in
  farming, there is a serious inequality in the distribution of
  land. In southern Malawi, land has become barren due to the overuse
  of fertilisers. As the price of fertilisers rises, many farmers
  cannot afford them. To these farmers, a low-cost and
  environment-friendly way of farming is urgently needed. An
  organisation formed with farmers in Malawi, the Lipangwe organic
  manure demonstration farm (LOMADEF), offers exactly that. The farm
  aims to reduce the dependence of small-scale subsistence farmers on
  high-cost farm inputs and to improve long-term soil fertility by
  teaching sustainable agricultural practices. It provides training to
  farmers on organic fertilisation for small plots of land. The
  farmers go on to form organisations in their own villages to promote
  organic agriculture. The plan has helped many farmers raise food
  production and reduce their dependency on fertilisers.


  In May the IMF said it would withhold US $47 million earmarked for
  Malawi under its Poverty Reduction Growth Facility, due to
  government overspending. If the government stuck to its economic
  targets, a decision would be made to release the funds in
  December. Britain said it would also consider releasing funds it was
  holding after studying the IMF report.


  Of particular concern to some African governments is how the
  introduction of GM corn could affect small-scale farmers, who make
  up the majority of Africa's population. Food security for these
  farmers depends on their ability to save seeds. Most of the farmers
  use seeds saved from their harvests, but patents on many GM
  varieties require that farmers purchase seeds every year from

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