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The governance dimensions of food security in Malawi

Caroline Sahley, Bob Groelsema, Tom Marchione & David Nelson

USAID

20 September 2005

SARPN acknowledges USAID as the source of this document.
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Executive summary

This report presents findings and conclusions from a governance and food security assessment of Malawi. The first such study undertaken by USAID was in Nicaragua in May 2004. In recognition of the cross-sectoral challenges involved, USAID’s Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, Office of Democracy and Governance (DCHA/DG) and the Office of Food for Peace (DCHA/FFP) jointly conducted the study. The field work was undertaken in January-February 2005 with the purpose of identifying the underlying governance causes of food security problems. Six key findings and four main conclusions are highlighted by the report:

Summary Findings

  • Owing to a range of factors from declining soil fertility and dependence on fertilizer subsidies to small plot size, its lack of foreign exchange, and its high incidence of HIV/AIDs, Malawi is increasingly food insecure. In recent years it has become dependent on food donations to fulfill its national food need. Most households live below the poverty line, are unable to access a minimum basket of food items through their own food production or by market purchases. The dominance of maize in the weaning diet contributes to the high proportion of children who are severely stunted. With little resilience to climatic, economic and social shocks, households have become extremely vulnerable to food insecurity.


  • Food security is perhaps the most visible and sensitive public policy issue in Malawi. Since the Banda era, Malawians have widely identified food security with national self-sufficiency in maize production. Most households raise maize for their own consumption. A compact between government and its citizens regarding targeted inputs entitlements, has become politicized and the subject of policy disagreements between government and donors that are often portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in the Malawian press.


  • Malawians and donors are also at odds over state and market solutions to food availability and access. Because donors provide up to 80% of Malawi’s development assistance and some 50% of Malawi’s annual recurrent costs (ODA equals $35 per capita), food security issues have become ‘externalized’. Competing views, interests, and demands have polarized stakeholders, compromised policy coherence, and subjected policy-making and implementation to ideological leanings. Hence, policy is marked by erratic swings, and the social contract between the GoM and its citizens is eroding.


  • Government capacity for food and nutrition policy implementation is thin. Implementation requires complex, multi-sector efforts between central and local levels, and among governmental, NGO, private sector and donor communities. It seemed to the assessment team questionable whether the Ministry of Agriculture’s reduced staff had the political capital and the technical capacity to coordinate food security and safety nets across ministries and agencies. As the food security crisis in Malawi has deepened, donor technicians and international NGOs have filled the vacuum, thus raising sustainability issues.


  • Central level commitment to implementing decentralized local governance has been lackluster, but may become a higher priority under the Mutharika administration. Unresolved ambiguities between traditional and modern-state authority plague food security especially as it relates to land reform. Who owns customary land, and who decides how tenure will be awarded constitute one of the hot-button issues confronting Malawi. It is not apparent that the views of the Malawians most potentially affected have been taken into account.


  • President Mutharika has taken a strong public stand against corruption. The response of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture to the ‘maize scandal’ indicates the healthy emergence of checks and balances and accountability mechanisms.
Summary Conclusions

The closer state legitimacy is linked to maize availability, the more likely food security policy will be politicized. To the extent that maize availability and affordability are jeopardized, so too is the ship of state. This truism explains Mutharika’s seemingly rash June 24, 2004 campaign promise, which followed on the heels of Malawi’s worst food shortage in years. Donors could curb the tendency for food electioneering by using their influence for ‘politics smoothing’, that is, by supporting actions that anticipate political manipulation of food policies for political advantage and thus aim to keep the lid on unrealistic promises to dampen down ad hoc policymaking and to prevent critical delays in food delivery as witnessed in 2004/05.

In aid-dependent Malawi, external influences are as important if not more important in determining policy choices than is internal competition. Donor ideologies and interests, which shape the contours of policy debate and policies, bypass local structures. As one Member of Parliament told the team, “Government should come up with a Malawi policy, not a donor policy.” Donors need to recognize that their actions carry political and social consequences, not the least of which might adversely affect food security and contribute to a weakening of the social contract between government and citizens. Donors need to be sensitive to allowing government, private sector interests, and civil society to establish their vision for Malawi.

Ownership leads to institutionalization. Donors and foreign implementing partners have assumed a preponderant role in designing strategies and implementing food programs over the years. Local capacity constraints are often the justification, but incapacitation is the result. Donors need to integrate projects into governance structures, facilitate creative partnerships between food security implementers and various government actors, continue to support decentralized democratic governance, and encourage accountability structures.

The current constellation of forces in Malawi offers donors a window of opportunity to strengthen accountability mechanisms. First, donors could provide financial and technical support to fledgling government watchdogs like the ACB until alternative sources of financing could be found, some of which might come from case recoveries. Second, donors could continue to strengthen the oversight and deliberative capacity of Parliament’s committees. Third, they could support the development of the independent media sector and media associations to increase public awareness of public processes, and hence increase the accountability of government agencies to the public for food security. Fourth, they could encourage civil society participation in local, district, and national governments, and in hot button policy issues such as land reform. Increased citizen participation if channeled peacefully, will affect the policy agenda in a positive way. The opportunity to promote integrity in politics and food security possibly has never been better, but immediate action is required, because policy windows close as quickly as they open.



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