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United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Famine in Malawi: Causes and consequences

Human Development Report 2007/2008
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Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper 2007/35


Roshni Menon

Human Development Report Office

SARPN acknowledges United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as a source of this document: http://hdr.undp.org
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Introduction: Legacy of food insecurity in Malawi

Reports of a devastating famine in Malawi first surfaced as rumors whispered in rural areas in the country around October 2001. However, little was done by way of action. Government officials in Lilongwe and members of the donor community were hard pressed to believe or act on the problem even as civil society groups such as the Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN) and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace began to present evidence supporting the reports coming from the countryside. Consequently, by the time the crisis in rural Malawi was finally publicized in February 2002, famine and severe food insecurity were rampant: from January to April 2002, between 500 and 1,000 people died of hunger or hunger-related diseases in the southern and central regions of the country. These deaths contributed to making the famine one of the worst in living memory—more devastating than the drought of 1991/92 and even worse than the Nyasaland famine of 1949. Moreover in 2005, Malawi had another difficult year with more than 4.7 million out of a population of 12 million experiencing food shortages (Phiri 2005). This marked the sixth year in a row that the country had experienced some form of food shortage, with some commentators suggesting that this recent event may be “Malawi’s worst food crisis for a decade” (SOS News 2005).

This paper will examine the causes of the 2002 famine as well as the greater context for the underlying vulnerability factors that left poor Malawians unable to cope with a negative production shock that was, in reality, less severe than the drought of 1991/92. An attempt will be made to assess both the ‘technical’ and ‘political’ reasons for the famine, and the related failure of the donor community to respond in a timely manner. This will be followed by a brief overview of the factors leading to further food insecurity in 2005. Finally, the paper will consider social protection measures in place in Malawi, as well as the potential policy gaps in this regard.



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