The West helps, and harms, as Southern Africa seeks food
Editor's note: Monitor staff correspondent Danna Harman and staff photographer Andy Nelson spent three weeks in southern Africa, looking at the causes behind widespead food shortages facing six nations. This is the second in a four-part series.Skip to next paragraph
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Last May, with signs of a food crisis in Southern Africa growing, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) rented out a two-story building in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa. Gray carpeting was rolled out, cubicles were erected, coffeemakers wheeled in, computers hooked up, and ID badges handed out. The emergency center sprung into high gear.
Some 50 WFP employees were flown in from other stations across the world. Tim Smith, who used to work in the Sierra Leone office, was brought in to the Johannesburg headquarters in July and put in charge of ports and shipping logistics. His job: to track incoming food donations and coordinate the movement of the cargo to distribution points around the continent.
Mr. Smith's mobile phone rings nonstop. The distribution agents in Maputo, Mozambique, want to know when exactly the Liberty Grace - a US freighter filled with 50,000 tons of yellow corn - will be arriving. Someone calls to say there is a storm coming down the coast which could hamper offloading. An overland logistics officer tells him that some trucks have broken down and a transport agent wants more money.
"There are always hitches," he says calmly. "But nothing more or less than the usual. We just keep it all moving."
Smith and his team are working hard to help mitigate a food shortage affecting 14.5 million people in six Southern African countries. Little rain has fallen on the region this growing season, so people here are relying on international donations. But the food that Smith and the WFP are distributing - sent here by the US, Europe, and Japan - might not even be needed, say observers, if those same countries would open up their markets to African goods. Some argue that Africa is in the position it is in now - unable to remedy the food shortage itself - because rich countries have put up trade barriers that have kept Africa poor and reliant on the West.
Eliam Diamond lives on the shores of Lake Malawi in the small fishing village of Chiwawala, some 100 miles from the capital, Lilongwe. But he is not a fisherman.
"Fishing," says this father of six, "is a rich man's business." Fishing requires a net and rope and bait, he patiently explains, and, most significantly, a canoe. He has none of these.
He is not a farmer, either. He tried for some time, digging in the soil with a handmade hoe and lovingly sprinkling in corn seeds. But his plot was too small, his production too meager, and the market too saturated.
"Farming used to be the poor man's business," says Mr. Diamond. "But these days, it is just like fishing - for the rich man."
Diamond is a weaver. He makes mats out of dried palm leaves. A six-foot sleeping mat takes him four days to make and sells for as little as 4 cents, not enough to buy what little food there is here. So he relies on handouts.
A few days ago, Diamond picked up his monthly ration of donated US corn from the WFP at the Ngodzi distribution center near his village, carrying home the 110-pound bags tied to his old bicycle. Throughout Malawi, there are an estimated 3.3 million people like Diamond - too poor to buy food, living on monthly distributions from international aid organizations.
But, say critics, the problem of terrible poverty will not be solved with handouts.
Rich donors - the US, the European Union, and Japan, in particular - would be doing much more good in the long term if they concentrated on trade, instead of aid, goes the argument.