MALAWI: There is food but no money to take it to the people

Another year with a surplus harvest of maize, the staple food, is good news for Malawi, but dry spells in the south have left around 700,000 people in need of food assistance.

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The government and the private sector have the capacity to provide “all the maize needed for humanitarian response for the year, thanks to this surplus,” the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) said in its latest report. The bad news is that distributing the food aid has been delayed because funding has not yet been made available.

The multi-agency Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee identified 718,000 people who would need of food aid between March and June, but said the number of hungry could climb to 1.1 million by October.

By early July aid had still not reached those in need of it, and FEWSNET warned that food insecure families could resort to “desperate coping mechanisms” like harvesting water lilies on the Shire River for food, where people could drown and crocodiles lurked. Many others would become overly reliant on charcoal and firewood sales, which would have a long-term harmful effect on the environment.

Long-standing problem

The delay in distributing food aid, caused by a lack of funding for operational costs, has long been a problem in Malawi; the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) does not have a budget for this aspect of its response.

The FEWSNET report said the government was holding discussions with donors to set up a humanitarian response fund to be able to respond on time. Officials in the DoDMA told IRIN they would comment next week when they had some clarity.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) told IRIN that it was “working closely with other development partners to ensure the [Malawi] government is able to distribute its grain reserves to those most in need”.

In January, the Council for Non Governmental Organisations in Malawi , an umbrella body for NGOs, had urged the government in a statement to “consider mobilizing resources for relief operations other than wait until the ugly face of this [possible] catastrophe begins to take its toll on the people”.

The case for cash transfers

The delay has given more impetus to an ongoing debate on whether people in need should be given cash transfers or food aid. “Cash transfers will enable the beneficiary to access food or any item quickly from the existing markets, rather than waiting for all the logistics to take place,” Malawi’s permanent secretary for agriculture and food security, Andrew Daudi, told IRIN in an email.

Once the beneficiaries had been identified, ATM cards could be distributed in the affected districts. “Even if the money is coming from outside Malawi, it can be deposited there and beneficiaries can access it in Malawi with minimum delays,” he said.

The maize in the government’s strategic grain reserve would have to be packaged for distribution, for which sacks would have to be bought. “District Commissioners have to meet, furthering the delays. Breakdowns of the identified vehicles cannot be ruled out.” If dried beans, peas or other pulses had to be bought, cash transfers would also save time spent on tendering and sourcing, Daudi noted.

With money in hand, people could buy a variety of food such as vegetables, salt, oil, fish, or even meat, instead of depending on the typical food aid handout of maize and pulses, he wrote. “Let the beneficiary make a decision – this is what I feel. I could be wrong, but let us try it; if we fail, we’ll make a U-turn.”

On the other hand, officials question why the country should give people money to buy food when there is a surplus. The government is expected to announce a decision on funding for operational costs funds next week, but aid workers said cash transfers might still be rolled out in some of the affected districts by October.

DFID, a long-time advocate of cash transfers, told IRIN that it has been assisting the Malawian government to develop the use of cash transfers to address food shortages. DFID provided more than US$1.1 million for cash transfers to meet food shortages in 2006.

It is also providing more than $755,000 in cash transfers to people affected by the series of earthquakes that hit the northern Karonga district in December 2009 to rebuild and repair their houses.


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]