The 2002 Malawi Famine

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Case Study #7-1 of the Program: ''Food Policy For Developing Countries: The Role Of Government In The Global Food System''


Famine has been described as “a catastrophic disruption of the social, economic, and institutional systems that provide for food production, distribution, and consumption” (von Braun et al. 1998). Famines have occurred in every part of the world throughout history, and the 21st century is no exception. Millions of people, mainly in Africa, still suffer food shortages and occasionally face famine. Famine can occur not only when insufficient food is available, but also when people do not have adequate “entitlements” to access food (Sen 1981). From its independence in 1964 through the 1980s, Malawi was a self-sufficient producer of maize in nondrought years (Oygard et al. 2003). Since 2001, however, Malawi has depended on commercial imports and food aid to meet its national needs. Although the 1991/1992 harvest was half the size of the 2000/2001 maize harvest, no food crisis occurred in 1992. To understand what caused changes in national food sovereignty and household food security between 1991 and 2001 and the events of the 2002 famine in Malawi, this case study reviews the decisions, events, and policies before, during, and after the 2002 famine from four angles: availability of food, access to food, underlying poverty, and political and institutional issues. The availability of food was affected by flooding, transportation bottlenecks, the sale of the government's reserve grains in 2001, and poor crop estimates. Access to food was restricted for some because grain did not reach the most rural areas, and prices soared, making white maize, the staple food, too expensive for many to buy. Underlying poverty was also a factor: 65 percent of Malawians live below the poverty line, HIV/AIDS levels are climbing, and purchasing power dropped in the 1990s, making many people more vulnerable to production shocks and overcoming their coping strategies. Finally, political and institutional issues, such as liberalization of the grain parastatal, the absence of safety nets, and strained relations between the government of Malawi and donors, contributed to the famine. This case study evaluates the best strategies to pursue national food sovereignty and household food security and analyzes policies that can prevent famine while meeting longer-term development needs—an effort that is necessary to prevent future famines and decrease poverty. It also explores how food availability and access can be assured for remote regions and the poorest citizens and considers whether government interventions or free markets offer the best approach to achieving short- and long-term national food sovereignty and household food security. Your assignment is to assess the effectiveness of the actions taken by the government of Malawi in 2002, identify policy failures and successes, and suggest actions and policy measures that should be put in place by the government, food aid donors, and the private sector to effectively prevent future famines while striving for long-term national food sovereignty and household food security.

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13 pp.

©Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. All rights reserved. This case study may be reproduced for educational purposes without express permission but must include acknowledgment to Cornell University. No commercial use is permitted without permission.


Cornell University Division of Nutritional Sciences

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Erica Phillips (2007). Case Study #7-1, ''The 2002 Malawi Famine''. In: Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Fuzhi Cheng (editors), ''Food Policy for Developing Countries: Case Studies.''13 pp.

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