October 13, 2007

The Joys of Cheap Fertilizer

For the past 20 years, the World Bank and assorted Western governments have been telling Malawi how to conduct its affairs. Stop subsidizing crop prices. Curtail spending. Float your currency. And so on. More recently, in 2000, donors demanded that Malawi dismantle a fledgling program that subsidized fertilizer for poor farmers--who often can't afford it on their own--on the grounds that the subsidies would make it impossible for a "solid agricultural market to develop."

Well, it's hard to flout the donors, and Malawi did as told. What happened next? Some 1,500 Malawians starved to death in 2002, and five million more needed emergency rations in 2005. So, last year, the government finally told its "advisors" to shove off and put the subsidies back in place. Two years of record surpluses followed, and Malawi is now shipping excess maize to Zimbabwe. As Toronto's Globe and Mail tells it, the subsidies have worked wonders; they're far cheaper than importing food aid; and even the EU has reversed its stance and pledge to underwrite the fertilizer coupons.

Is everything that simple? Yes and no, I guess. This reminds me of a long New York Times Magazine piece from 2003 about famine in Malawi. The author, Barry Bearak, noted that African poverty poses an endlessly intractable problem that no one quite knows how to solve. Many onlookers agree that the "structural adjustment" reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank have frequently been a disaster (although, in the case of Malawi, the IMF maintains that its recommendations "were sound and remain valid"--they just haven't been carried out properly). But there's no consensus on what comes next.

That said, Bearak did make clear in his piece that famine wasn't at all inevitable. Every farmer he interviewed basically told him the same thing: "If you give us fertilizer, or a reasonable way to buy it, we'll manage for ourselves from one hungry season to the next." It just took years for anyone to listen.

Update: An internal investigation finds... that the World Bank's approach to African agriculture has been a disaster.
-- Brad Plumer 2:54 PM || ||