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The food security paradox

Crops cropped
Food security has been the hallmark of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika's rule, yet half a million Malawians are at risk of starving.
Photo by Jenny Vaughan.

By Michelle Dobrovolny

Following a famine in 2002, in which thousands died and three million people were relying on food aid, Malawi has turned itself around and recorded a surplus of maize, the country’s staple crop, for the past five years.

There is enough food for everybody. So why, according to a recent report from the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, are half a million Malawians still at risk of starving?

Malawi is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the international treaty which determines access to food as a human right. Further, the right to food is included in the national constitution.

Unfortunately, neither has done much to prevent people from going hungry in the country.

Chandiwira Chisi, a food security activist working for the international NGO ActionAid, says that without having the right to food enshrined in law, such food inequities will continue to exist. That’s why right to food legislation is being pushed by a number of NGOs in the country.

“If we have a clearly developed law in place,” says Chisi, “it could guarantee that citizens of different social levels can protect their right to food.”

As economist Amartya Sen famously argued, people don’t go hungry because a country lacks food but because certain people don’t have access to food. Preventing famine isn’t simply about producing more food. In most cases, the food is there.

Malawi is a case in point. Food security has been the hallmark of Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidency since he took office in 2004. Millions of Malawians were relying on food aid in 2002. The recent surpluses are credited to a fertilizer subsidy program that Mutharika supported in 2005. Thousands of kilograms of fertilizer are distributed each year to the 80 per cent of Malawians who rely on subsistence farming.

Carol Samdup, an advisor for the Canadian NGO, Rights & Democracy, who helped draft the right to food bill, says the new legislation will allow government to be held accountable when food shortages arise as a result of mismanagement.

“The value of the human rights framework is that it elevates food security from an aspirational goal to a legal obligation of the state,” says Samdup. “Consequently, [people] are able to hold the state accountable when policies are ineffective, discriminatory, or harmful of their enjoyment of their right to food.”

The bill also proposes to establish an arms-length investigative body to look into—and hopefully prevent—potential food violations. Similar legislation providing for the right to food has been adopted in ten countries over the past decade.

The Malawian right to food bill was first drafted in 2002 but it has been passing hands since and, nearly a decade later, it seems the political will to push it forward has evaporated.

“Initially, the government was on board when it came to recognition of a right to food framework,” says Chisi. “But then, early in 2010, we began seeing a change on their part. They began expressing fears that the Right to Food bill would exert too much pressure on government.”

Samdup has heard similar concerns from the Malawian administration.

“There seems to be a misunderstanding about the right to food within Malawi’s government,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that you have to feed people. It means you have to provide the platform from which people can feed themselves.”

Dr. Andrew Daudi, secretary for the agriculture ministry, refused to comment on the government’s position.

Whether or not the Right to Food bill would prove effective remains to be seen. What is clear is that with half a million presently at risk of starving, subsidizing fertilizers and international treaties have not been enough to prevent people from going hungry in Malawi.

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