Africa's coming hunger

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Hunger is again stalking Southern Africa. Throughout the length of the already-impoverished nation of Malawi, there is no maize, the staple food. Cassava, a substitute stomach filler, is also hard to find. So are yams. Moreover, no one seems to be doing anything to avert the coming starvation. Officials deny the seriousness of the situation.

Here, on the rainy slopes of towering Mt. Zomba in Malawi, I purchased small white potatoes and could have bought dead and live animals that were dangled from outstretched arms, a scattering of vegetables, and a variety of herbs and charms. But nothing was on sale to fill the belly in the local African manner.

Neighboring Zambia is also bereft of maize and cassava. So is Zimbabwe, traditionally a much wealthier land that usually exports maize and whose people disdain cassava and yams. In Zimbabwe, too, cooking oil and sugar (both of which Zimbabwe usually provides in abundance) are hard to find. Bread was unavailable last week.

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In these three countries, up to 30 million people are at risk of going hungry by July, and millions of children are certain to become even more malnourished than they already are.

The shortages have three causes: a severe drought in the 2001 growing season, heavy rains that destroyed crops, and official mismanagement and inattention. Despite independent warnings, governments in two countries, Malawi and Zambia, have been slow to accept the extent of the maize and cassava shortfalls. Both countries have also lacked the foreign exchange with which to purchase maize from South Africa or more distant exporters.

The growing hunger in Zimbabwe has more directly man-made causes. By attacking commercial farmers steadily since 2000, President Mugabe has destroyed agricultural productivity. In recent months, too, Mugabe's thugs have confiscated maize being stored on farms to feed loyal farm workers, adding to the spread of rural famine. Despite forecasted maize shortfalls, the government sold its existing inventory of maize to the Congo and Kenya in October. High-placed individuals profited.

In order to feed Zimbabwe from February to July, when this year's maize crop will have been harvested, transported, and milled, the country will have to import about 750,000 metric tons of maize. That means moving 150,000 tons a month along congested rail lines from South Africa, or receiving the equivalent in US surplus maize directly or from the UN World Food Program via Dar es Salaam in distant Tanzania.

All of this is tortuous, late, expensive (if purchased from South Africa), and politically volatile. Yet Zimbabwe, unlike Zambia and Malawi, is virtually bankrupt because of Mugabe's troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and official corruption. Zambia and Malawi are poor and lack funds to invest in their people's welfare.

Indeed, Zambia's long-nationalized, mismanaged, and patronage-ridden copper industry, which provides 75 percent of the nation's export earnings, is about to collapse. By the end of 2002, Zambia may lose its main source of employment.

Malnutrition will hardly help the millions who are HIV-positive fight off AIDS. All three countries have adult HIV-positive rates approaching 30 percent. Malawi, with one physician per 60,000 persons, has the weakest health- care system, but the other two, especially cash-starved Zimbabwe, are also desperate.

Zambia has a new government, but the recent regime of President Frederick Chiluba was notoriously corrupt and magnificently neglectful of its people's welfare.

Once-tranquil Malawi has also been going through a crisis of governance and alleged corruption. Judges have been impeached, a tough and honest finance minister sacked, university students shot, and democracy made more precarious.

In a country where donors provide up to 15 percent of the annual gross domestic product, Denmark has recently withdrawn its mission in disgust, Britain is withholding balance of payments support, and the US has reduced aid.

Even if Mugabe is ousted in next month's election in Zimbabwe and President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia revamps his predecessor's policies, the specter of hunger will still hang over their two countries, and even more unfortunate and beleaguered Malawi. Massive outside humanitarian aid is required immediately. It should be coupled with outside insistence on governmental probity, but that may be asking a lot.

• Robert I. Rotberg directs Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict and is president of the World Peace Foundation.

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