Freedom Is Not Enough

Josiah Masiamphoka is tired of being a beggar. But the subsistence farmer and father of six lives in Malawi, where the rains have again failed to fall. The first time Masiamphoka was forced to take handouts was in 1994, when he lost most of his corn to drought. Then drought struck again in 1998, and again in 2002. Now the United Nations World Food Program has just announced a $150 million appeal to rescue Masiamphoka and millions of other people facing hunger and starvation in southern Africa. But WFP officials concede that a new appeal will likely be needed two or three years from now, when the rains fail again. "In the old days, people had food," says Masiamphoka, 59, whose family has subsisted for months on water lilies and shriveled sweet potatoes. "But it seems like God has decided to punish us."

How can the world rescue people like Masiamphoka from endless cycles of hunger and aid? Nobel Prize-winning Harvard economist Amartya Sen attracted worldwide attention in the 1980s when he offered an answer to the problem of starvation: more democracy. Sen contrasted the famines in repressive one-party states--Ethiopia in 1984 and China in the late 1950s and early 1960s--with successful efforts to manage food crises in nascent democracies such as Botswana. "Democracy gives the government a reason to prevent famine, because the penalty of famine is that the government can lose an election over it," says Sen. "A free press and public debate bring these issues into the forefront."

The theory makes perfect sense but has one problem: Malawi has had a multiparty system and a free press since 1994, when reformers ousted "Life President" Hastings Banda. Malawi rarely experienced a food crisis under the repressive Banda regime, which lasted 30 years; since Banda's demise, it's had several. "In 11 years we have gone backward, not forward," says Undule Mwakasungura, program director of Malawi's Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation. "We are poorer than we ever were."

Nobody is arguing from this that despotism is the solution. Banda murdered and tortured his political opponents. Per capita income reached only a little more than $200 a year during his reign, and child mortality was high. Moreover, Banda's policy of single-crop cultivation left a legacy of depleted soils and one of the worst crop-yield averages on earth. In the twilight of his rule, in 1993, the country did suffer a serious food shortage. But Malawians say he deserves credit for providing the country's 1 million subsistence farmers with subsidized seeds and fertilizer, and guaranteeing them world-market prices for their corn. "Banda was dictatorial, but at least he made sure that people never died of hunger," says Mwakasungura.

When Banda was ousted, international donors demanded that the new government lift budget-busting subsidies, taking away much of the farmers' safety net. Under the country's first elected president, Bakili Muluzi, corrupt officials fed on the spoils. In 2002 investigators discovered that parliamentarians and bureaucrats had looted the country's grain reserves and sold them at huge profits to international traders. The head of the Agricultural Development Marketing Corp. at the time, Friday Jumbe, allegedly earned more than $3 million from the sales, and poured $650,000 into the construction of a luxury hotel. The scandal hit just as the worst drought in a decade wiped out much of Malawi's harvest.

Malawi's democratic government has also done a poor job of managing the country's water. Despite a series of prolonged droughts, critics say, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation has failed to exploit the country's two main water sources, the Shire River and Lake Malawi. Barely 1 percent of the country's arable land is irrigated, and peasant farmers remain almost entirely dependent on rainfall to survive. "We have wasted almost every drop of water we have," says Fidelis Mgowa, a rural-development expert with Catholic Relief Services in Blantyre. "Our democratic institutions are weak, and the government doesn't feel the pressure to do anything."

Sen argues that Malawi is the exception that proves the rule. He distinguishes between "functioning democracies" and "nonfunctioning democracies"--and puts Malawi firmly in the latter category. Other experts say that the problem in Malawi is not politics but poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, the noted economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, points out that since the Banda years, HIV has spread to nearly 20 percent of Malawi's population. Roads have deteriorated, the population has exploded (in spite of AIDS), the climate has worsened and chronic malnutrition has left a generation of stunted, damaged children.

Sachs says that throwing food relief at countries in dire need creates a culture of de-pendency. He believes that foreign donors need to invest $1 billion a year in Malawi over the next decade, or $70 per capita annually, in projects designed to get the population back on its feet. The money would go to seed, fertilizer, irrigation proj-ects, road improvements, electrification, safe drinking water and health care. "The donors have been unwilling to face up to this," says Sachs. "They send food aid once people are dying, and it comes too late and too little. But they don't help the country grow the food."

But can massive aid be put to good use without capable leadership? Malawi's current president, Bingu wa Mutharika, is a former U.N. trade expert who earned a master's degree in economics in the United States. He has promised to clean up cor-ruption and has made agricultural de-velopment a priority. But Mutharika has been embroiled in a dispute with opponents that has all but para-lyzed his government. Last month, rivals, led by former president Muluzi, launched impeachment proceedings against him, claiming that he had misused public funds. Mutharika claims that he is the victim of a campaign by crooked politicians who fear being caught up in his anti-corruption drive. In rural areas, some peasant farmers have reacted to the impeachment effort with disgust. "As soon as these politicians are elected, that's the end of it," says Josiah Masiamphoka, walking past parched fields sprawling just a few hundred yards from the Shire River. "They have nothing to do with the people who put them in power." Masiamphoka wouldn't have dared make such a statement under Hastings Banda. But then, he also had food on his table.

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