- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

LILONGWE, Malawi The children's eyes are bulging and listless, their shoulder blades jab out of their emaciated backs, and their heads and bloated bellies seem grotesquely huge next to their shriveled limbs.

With an epidemic of hunger gripping Malawi, the pediatric malnutrition ward at Lilongwe Central Hospital is packed with about 100 desperately hungry children, some just a few months old.

Aid groups say many thousands of children and adults across the country have died from hunger-related illnesses since the crisis began last year, and they predict the situation will get far worse without immediate international aid.

It did not have to be this bad.

While it was bad weather that destroyed the corn harvest here over the past two years, it was government mismanagement, poorly timed agricultural reforms and the disastrous sale of Malawi's emergency grain reserve that turned a crisis into a near disaster, according to international aid workers, Western diplomats and even some government officials.

The World Food Program says hunger is spreading across southern Africa, caused by severe droughts that dried crops and by floods that destroyed much of what survived.

The WFP warned last month that six nations in the region face severe food shortages, with 2.6 million people already going hungry and the situation expected to worsen in the coming months. But many of those countries also have been criticized for government policies that aid workers say have greatly exacerbated the crisis.

Zimbabwe, one of Africa's most fertile countries, has ably weathered most other regional hunger crises. This year, amid massive farming disruptions blamed on President Robert Mugabe's land-reform policies, millions of Zimbabweans will need food assistance.

Swaziland's monarchy chose to divert its agricultural resources into sugarcane instead of corn, with no backup plan in case its shrinking corn crop failed at the same time that sugar prices plunged, as happened this year.

The lack of true democracy in these countries was an important factor in the food shortages, because autocrats can cover up impending problems longer and are less likely to receive immediate aid from Western donors, said Chris Landsberg, co-director of the Center for Africa's International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"If we had more democratic regimes in our region, then the region would have been better able to deal with this crisis," he said.

Many Western diplomats and aid workers agree, though all spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the countries where they work.

Hunger is nothing new to impoverished Malawi. It comes every year.

When the grain harvested in April and May runs out in December, rural Malawians scrounge for wild vegetables and to try to find scarce jobs to make money to buy corn, sold at low prices fixed by the government.

Last year, much of that corn, the main staple of the Malawi diet, ran out months earlier than usual after severe flooding.

In typical years, the government would have tapped into its big emergency grain reserve, which could help feed the country for several months. But last year, amid overly optimistic crop forecasts, it sold off nearly all 167,000 tons of the reserve, leaving nothing for the country's hungry.

When the extent of the hunger became apparent, the government tried to import 134,000 tons of grain from South Africa by the end of last year. But the imports were slowed by the poor transportation network, and months after the deadline only about 90,000 tons have arrived.

The government says Western donors and the International Monetary Fund which are withholding some grants to Malawi amid concerns of corruption and financial mismanagement pushed it to sell the reserve, arguing that it was too expensive to store the grain, and that the government needed the money to service a debt.

The donors say they suggested that the government sell the old corn before it spoiled and buy new corn, reducing the reserve's size but not to zero. The government says it never intended to sell off all the corn, and it is investigating what happened to the money from the sale.

"There seems to have been a breakdown in communication," said Ellard Malindi, head of Malawi's Agriculture Department.

Meanwhile, the government which appeared to be also acting on donors' advice decided to relax its control on the price of corn, and the cost soared. Just as impoverished Malawians were becoming desperately hungry, the official corn price went from 3 cents a pound to about 12 cents. In some areas, corn cost more than 23 cents a pound.

"It is not that there is nothing to eat, but that they can't afford the food," said Collins Magalasi, national coordinator for the Malawi Economic Justice Network.

The government also relaxed controls on the cost of fertilizer and seeds, so their prices shot up dramatically, making it harder for people to plant much for a new harvest.

This year's crop also was harmed by dry weather, and the government resisted declaring a state of disaster, which could have spurred reluctant donors to help, until Feb. 27.

"You need a more intelligent government, a government with a little more insight," said Lizzie Funekile Nkosi, program director here of Save the Children UK.

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