Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Corn and global ethics in Malawi

It has been some time since the last post. Two things have monopolized my time: (a) setting up a qualitative research project in Malawi on community attitudes towards male circumcision as a way of reducing risk of HIV and (b) writing an NIH Bioethics grant renewal -- in fact a renewal of the grant which is affiliated with this blog. This involved flying to Blantyre (Malawi) to help train interviewers on qualitative methods by day, while furiously grant-writing by night.

While I was in Malawi, there was a New York Times piece that caught my eye, and also the eye of the local population. Malawi is currently experiencing a food surplus, only two years after being on the brink of famine. The past food shortages were especially alarming in the light of the high HIV prevalence in the country, and the need for good nutrition to help manage the virus. The turnaround from famine is attributed to a change in governmental policy in regard to the subsidization of fertilizer. For years, under pressure of the World Bank and other donor agencies, the Malawian government were reluctant to subsize fertilizer so that local farmers could afford it. The theory, emanating from Washington, was that it would be better for Malawian farmers to grow cash crops (like tobacco) for export and use what they earned in foreign exchange to import food. In practice, many farmers stuck to corn, but without fertilizer, and they found themselves producing less and less. After the disasterous 2005 harvest, the Malawian president started subsidizing fertilizer, the farmers got their hands on it, and yields skyrocketed. The painful irony is that while Washington preaches free markets and lack of government intervention for the poorest countries of the world, it gives billions of dollars in subsidies to its own agricultural sector. You have to wonder: how many people died in Malawi as a direct or indirect result of these unjust policies? It is probably impossible to know. Will foreign policy-makers be held accountable? Of course not.

The irony is not lost on the Malawians. Driving back in the rain from the College of Medicine in Blantyre, my colleague Eric Umar said: 'These kinds of things have happened many times before. It is not new. So after awhile, you get the idea that these foreign agencies are not really trying to succeed. They want us to suffer, if is in their own interest that we suffer.'


Blogger Eli said...

Great to read your posts again. I had been wondering how Malawians reacted to that NYT article. And yep, as I thought, it simply confirmed what they already knew.

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