Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Social networks break news of Mujuru death - Newsday: Everyday News for Everyday People

Social networks break news of Mujuru death - Newsday: Everyday News for Everyday People

Retired General Solomon Mujuru aka Rex Nhongo died in a house fire at his farm in Beatrice, just outside of Harare.
Zimbabwe's traditional media needs to make greater use of social media. None of them run any live blogs by their reporters to enable them to break news in real time and give minute-by-minute updates of trending topics; a reporter blogging live updates from their mobile phone right from Gen. Mujuru's farm describing what's transpiring, for instance. Short audio and video clips i.e of interviews or vox pop on websites cld provide a multimedia experience and scoop ZBC, thus challenging it to wake up or seal its lethargic approach to reporting news in the information age. With superspeed broadband being laid out in Zim, the future of news media belongs to those that will embrace this technological revolution.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Why is Africa still hungry?

Somali refugees wait for precious food handouts at Dadaab camp

FROM the cliff of television screens in western homes, images of emaciated African children with throngs of flies buzzing over their parched mouths fall like boulders, crashing audiences into an outpouring of sympathy and philanthropy.

Purveyed by the global media on an industrial scale, this harrowing pornography of human suffering has become standard fare in humanitarian appeals by western aid agencies in response to perennial famine on the African continent. Despite accusations of perpetuating negative stereotypes of the African condition, this formula has worked quite effectively for the aid agencies in mobilising massive amounts of food and basic necessities for humanitarian relief on the continent.

But after generations of disaster shock therapy, aid agencies fear that citizens of richer societies may have been fatigued by the unending cycle of suffering and helplessness. The slow global response to the current famine in the Horn of Africa, where the UN says tens of thousands – mostly children -have died so far, is a case in point.

Donor fatigue thus poses serious concerns for those facing acute food shortages because western humanitarian relief remains the most visible intervention and often makes the difference between life and death in situations of serious hunger. This unpalatable reality sorely underlines Africa’s woeful incapacity to come to the aid of its own in times of famine.

According to the UN Millenium Development Goals report for 2011 released last month, African children remain the most undernourished in the world, with countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, Angola and the DRC among the most vulnerable. ‘The poorest of the world are being left behind. We need to reach out and lift them into our lifeboat,’ UN chief Ban Ki-moon said during the launch of the report in Geneva.

‘Based on current trends, sub-Saharan Africa will be unable to meet the hunger-reduction target by 2015,’ the UN reported. By contrast, South-Eastern Asia, Eastern Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean are said to be on course to meet the target.

Stephen Devereux, an expert in food security and rural livelihoods at the University of Sussex who has worked in East and Southern Africa, says that during the twentieth century, famine was effectively eliminated from most regions of the world except Africa. ‘There has been no famine in Europe since the 1940s, in East Asia since the 1960s, or in South Asia since the 1970s,’ he observed. Ethiopia recorded the continent’s worst famine in 1984-5 when an estimated 590,000 people died.

Internally displaced women await assistance in Mogadishu

But why are contemporary famines exclusively confined to Africa? In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Africa saw famines in Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger (in 2000, 2002 and 2005, respectively), and the second has kicked off this year with hunger and death in the Horn of Africa. The UN says East Africa is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, with more than 10 million people threatened by starvation in four countries - Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

In its Global Information and Early Warning System for June 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) identified 30 countries requiring external assistance for food, 23 of which are in Africa. The reasons given for their need include exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production or supplies, widespread lack of access, and severe localised food insecurity.

According to FAO’s East Africa representative Mafa Chipeta, Africa consumes about 33 per cent off global food aid with Eastern Africa, which holds 3.6 per cent of the world’s population, consuming nearly 20 per cent of global food aid in normal years and more during drought periods.

‘In most African countries, food production is rising slower than population. For instance, in Southern Africa, between 1980-2001, cereals output rose
3 per cent whilst population grew by 34 per cent,’ he observed.

In Chipeta’s view, fast population growth coupled with the kind of armed conflicts that have blighted countries such as the DRC, Somalia, and Eritrea and Ethiopia have undermined agriculture. ‘In addition, there is inadequate public investment for agriculture, poor incentives to producers, and instability of policies and approaches to development,’ he added.

In a paper titled ‘Why does famine persist in Africa’, Devereux contends that famines in Africa are the outcome of three main causes: production failure owing to droughts, environmental processes and population issues; exchange failure, or economic reasons determining food availability and affordability, and response failure by governments and aid agencies to intervene to protect household food security following supply and/or demand failures.

It was Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who broke down the sources of all legal food to three – production, exchange (purchase or barter), and transfers (including food aid); and famine occurs when all three have failed.
According to Devereux, ‘food production and/or market access to food might fail, leaving people vulnerable to starvation, but a famine only occurs once there is also a failure of response - lack of transfers of food or cash to buy food’. He argues that the recurrence of humanitarian appeals in Africa reflects failures of policy to address fundamental vulnerabilities in African livelihood systems, which requires a range of pre-emptive measures and broader developmental interventions.

‘[A] concerted effort to eradicate famine in Africa requires intervening to reduce vulnerability and risk in each of the three areas discussed above: production, exchange, and response,’ he suggested.

Tackling production risks means addressing the vulnerability to food insecurity of the smallholder farmers who dominate the continent’s agricultural regions and who often grow a single or narrow range of crops for subsistence. Climate change is likely to make this situation worse, with the projected invariability of rainfall set to make planning difficult and harvests more precarious.

Devereux suggests that interventions to address this fundamental vulnerability could include more support to farmers, specifically, renewed research into high-yielding and drought-tolerant crops to stabilise yields, and subsidised access to agricultural inputs and credit to boost yields.

Africa needs to support smallholder farmers to increase food output
‘In this context, the recent reintroduction by governments in Malawi and elsewhere of fertiliser and seed subsidies, usually against donor advice, is an encouraging indicator of renewed public commitment to small farmers,’ he noted.

According to FAO, African governments need to prioritise and implement measures to develop agriculture and sustainable natural resources management to ensure food security for their people. ‘The ‘business as usual’ approach to the climate change problem will not reduce the vulnerability as this vulnerability is exacerbated by existing developmental challenges such as endemic poverty, complex institutional dimensions; limited access to capital, infrastructure and technology; ecosystem degradation; and complex natural disasters and conflicts,’ the organisation said in a paper to its May 2010 regional conference held in Angola.

The FAO report recognised that climate change jeopardises the economic progress achieved by Africa to date ‘due to the substantial diversion of resources required to fund adaptation initiatives. Estimates predict economic losses as a result of climate change as up to 14 per cent of GDP if adaptation measures fail to be implemented.’

Economic liberalisation policies across Africa effectively removed several pillars of food security support for the poor, such as price subsidies or open market operations by agricultural marketing parastatals to stabilise food prices. As a consequence, Devereux has argued, poor food purchasers have no protection against unregulated markets, which can result in staple food prices quadrupling or more within a few months. In the cases of the famines in Malawi and Niger, analysts argued that unaffordable food prices were the main driver of the famine.

Chipeta is more scathing, calling market liberalisation by African governments ‘irresponsible’. ‘ Africa has deregulated trade irresponsibly, opened up to imports even from heavily subsidising countries... Its local products cannot compete even in domestic markets – no other region has been so generous in trade concessions,’ he said, adding that structural adjustment led to the withdrawal of government support for agriculture precipitously, and downsized public sector institutions excessively.

Experts have recommended that weak commodity markets be strengthened or regulated, to protect the market-dependent poor against food price shocks. Devereux and Chipeta agree that building rural infrastructure - especially roads, transport and communications networks - is a prerequisite for integrating rural markets and equilibrating food supply and demand across surplus and deficit areas.

‘Rural investment is too low. There’s severe lack of infrastructure; for example, Africa is at India’s 1950s road density level, and on water use, Africa uses only 4 per cent available for farming in comparison to Asia’s 40 per cent. On fertilisers, Africa is at about 9kg per hectare, OECD countries are at 125kg, whilst East Asia is at about 250kg,’ Chipeta remarked.

Key proposals to address the reality of weak markets include allowing public intervention to correct for market failures. Devereux favours the inclusion of ‘effective management of national or regional grain reserves to stabilise staple food prices - buying grain at low post-harvest prices, storing it and releasing it at cost plus storage costs before the next harvest to dampen ‘hungry season’ price inflation’. On the other hand, farmers also need to be assured of reasonable prices for their produce, to boost smallholder incomes and ensure adequate food supplies.

In recent years, several studies have demonstrated a low correlation between levels of humanitarian need and levels of humanitarian response, and identified the strategic interests of donors as the main determinant of how much attention particular crises receive. The recent famines in Africa were all predicted by various early warning systems but these were ignored, emphasising the need for all sources of information to be treated seriously whilst recognising the potential for misinformation by interested parties.

In response to the goal to eradicate hunger, the African Union, through its Nepad programme, took up the challenge to increase both the amount and quality of food produced on the continent and, by doing so, ‘make families more food-secure, exports more profitable, and improve social and political stability’. It is from this ambitious aim that the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) was born in 2003. CAADP’s mission is to address policy and capacity issues across the entire agricultural sector and the African continent, and among its key targets is the achievement of agricultural growth rates of at least 6 per cent per annum.

However, it was not until 2007 that the first country, Rwanda, signed the CAADP Compact. By May 2011, 26 countries had incorporated CAADP into their agricultural strategy by signing the CAADP Compact. Without being overly uncharitable, CAADP is yet to make its mark and the fact of its slow endorsement by African countries is sufficient evidence of its effectiveness thus far in the struggle to eliminate extreme hunger in Africa by 2015.

Chipeta has urged Africa to swiftly move beyond adopting declarations and commitments to implementing them and calls for the continent to increase public support for agriculture. ‘Pious hopes are that external partners – and not Africa itself - will fund the Africa-led Nepad [but] the evidence is not encouraging,’ he said.

‘The bottom line is that Africa must urgently boost production and productivity to levels exceeding population growth rate … There is need to reverse much current public policy [and the] key is greater public investment to first create conditions attractive to serious private capital,’ he urged. African governments are encouraged to invest in domestic production rather than buy from the international market when prices are low because they do not have the resources to subsist on cash purchases, food prices will not remain low in future, and food is a national security issue able to threaten political freedom, Chipeta said.

Africa must be wary of argument that when international food prices are low it should buy food rather than invest in domestic production because prices it does not have the money, prices will not remain low, and food is a national security issue able to threaten political freedom.

There is strong currency in the argument that Africa has grown complacent from decades of receiving food relief and must stop acting as if food aid is a right and is a sustainable solution. Development experts say Africa needs to become self-confident about domestic production and follow it up with substantial investment of its own resources. Several countries have begun moving towards CAAPD’s goal to increase their investment in agriculture in relation to their GDP.

A crucial part of this strategy, experts say, is to make farming both competitive and rewarding. Governments are urged to make inputs available and affordable, and ensure protection of local products from unfair competition of subsidised imports by watching inequitable trade and partnership agreements.

With climate change projected to compound Africa’s precarious food security situation, nothing short of durable solutions is required to ensure the elimination of extreme poverty on the continent. According to Ban Ki-Moon, ‘It means climate-smart crop production, livestock rearing, fish farming and forest maintenance practices that enable all people to have year-round access to the nutrition they need’.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bingu waMutharika: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

Angry Malawians took to the streets on July 20 to protest at the rising cost of living and increasing government repression

MALAWI’s President Bingu wa Mutharika is a man under siege. Only a few weeks out of a costly diplomatic standoff with Britain in which the latter swiftly effected a freeze on crucial aid to the country, the beleaguered president faced vicious riots at home in the last half of July as Malawians vented their frustration with the high cost of living and shrinking civil liberties.

The riots of 20 July, which rocked the capital Lilongwe and the northern city of Muzu as hordes of protesters set up barricades whilst some looted shops, exploded from a tinderbox of economic and political frustrations that have been brewing in this characteristically stable country for a while now. According to Malawian historian Paul T. Zeleza, the immediate causes of the growing popular disaffection include the government’s growing authoritarianism and arbitrary power as reflected in the passage of harsh laws against civil liberties, and worsening economic mismanagement as manifested in shortages of fuel and foreign exchange, power outages, rising unemployment and inflation.

Zeleza also said Malawians were angry at Mutharika’s dangerous mobilisation of ethnicity as evident in the redistribution of jobs in the public sector to favour people from his ethnic group. The president has also railroaded his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to endorse his brother Peter, a former law professor in the US, as the party’s candidate in the presidential succession after Mutharika’s second term ends in 2014.

Often accused of ineptitude in controlling crowds and using disproportionate force to break up demonstrations, Malawi’s police force went for overkill – literally – in their efforts to disperse protesters over the two days of rioting. Although human rights activists concede that there were pockets of violent rioters armed with stones, they blamed the police’s use of excessive force for the deaths of at least 19 people.

Analysts say the government provoked an already tense situation by applying for an injunction to prevent protests the night before they were scheduled, leaving organisers with the impossible task of conveying the message to all participants. When the riots broke out the following day – 20 July – the government used its court injunction to declare the strikes illegal and thus legitimise its heavy-handed response.

On Thursday 21 July the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), organisers of the demonstrations, took out a public service announcement urging a stop to further protests. They said only Wednesday 20 July was the legitimate date for demonstrations, and a petition had been delivered to the president to that effect. Any further protests after that date were illegal. The president accused the protesters of committing treason warning, ‘If you go back to the streets, I will smoke you out. Enough is enough’

Man under siege: President waMutharika

Mutharika’s response to his countrymen’s growing disaffection with the economic hardships is that it was the IMF that had ordered the government to liberalise oil importation and the foreign exchange system, and leave them in the hands of the private sector. But there is widespread belief that Mutharika’s government is itself extravagant and refuses to accept self-sacrifice and austerity measures on itself to cut expenditure.

When Mutharika came to power in 2004 Malawi was experiencing serious food shortages which by 2005 had become a full-blown famine. As he had promised during his presidential campaign, once elected, he defied donors by implementing the most generous subsidy programme Malawian farmers had ever seen - the $74m Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP). Under the scheme, the government doled out bags of fertiliser and hybrid seed to maize farmers, with the budgeted subsidy increasing year by year.

The subsidy programme has been hailed as a regional success story. It has also earned Mutharika electoral capital as it has favoured small farmers, pulling many of them out of chronic food insecurity and saving the country money on its imports bill. In four years, maize production doubled and national food self-sufficiency increased substantially. Donor concerns with the programme’s sustainability centred on the increasing amount of gross domestic product that it is taking up and the volatility of both maize and fertiliser prices, as well as recurrent droughts. However, despite their initial opposition and lingering reservations, donor countries - including the UK and Norway – gave their support.

However, all this has now changed drastically following Mutharika’s expensive confrontation with Britain as well as the fallout from the recent riots. In April this year the Malawian government expelled the British High Commissioner in the country, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet after Cochrane-Dyet angered the Malawi government by describing Mutharika as ‘a combative president’ who is increasingly becoming ‘autocratic and intolerant of criticism’ in a leaked memo.

‘The governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights,’ the British envoy said in a leaked cable which had been sent to Foreign Secretary William Hague. In retaliation for what he called the ‘totally unacceptable and unwarranted’ expulsion of the British envoy, Hague also expelled Malawi’s acting High Commissioner and her dependents from London.

‘It is a worrying sign that the Malawian Government is expending its energies in this way, rather than focussing on the real and substantial challenges facing it, including the need for improved governance,’ Hague said, announcing the Malawian envoy’s expulsion. He said he had also ordered officials ‘to review rapidly the full range of our wider relationship with Malawi’. Britain announced a month later that it was freezing aid worth $550 million over the next four years as a result of the diplomatic fallout. In June, it froze its financial support for Malawi’s fertiliser and seed programme.

It has been a rough year for Mutharika. In March, the country lost more than $400 million in aid money when donors, including Germany, Norway, the World Bank, African Development Bank, and the European Union, suspended or ended their budget support. Britain, Malawi’s former colonial master and the country’s biggest donor, $31m in budget support for 2011.

The latest round of aid freezes has come courtesy of the government’s murderous response to the recent riots. The American aid agency Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) on July 16 unleashed its own body blow to Malawi’s depleted coffers by freezing its $350m accord with the troubled country. Up to 40 per cent of Malawi’s national budget comes from foreign aid.

Malawian officials have remained silent over the latest round of aid suspensions, AFP reported, adding that the silence of senior officials on the issue of MCC’s pullout says much about the prevailing political condition in the current administration. ‘Under Mutharika’s tightly controlled administration, ministers rarely dare speak out until the president himself has commented,’ the agency added. Malawi has an entrenched tradition of strong presidential rule as established by Mutharika’s two predecessors, founding father Hastings Kamuzu Banda and recent past leader Bakili Muluzi.
The Malawian media has laid into Mutharika for costing the country critical support from donors, with the Daily Times newspaper saying in its editorial that Malawi ‘needs every penny its partners pledge to help… This is particularly so now when the country’s economy is teetering on the brink of collapse under the heavy burden of the twin fuel and forex shortages and electricity outgages. Good leaders are discerning and read the writing on the wall and then do the needful,’ the newspaper added.
Defiantly, Malawi passed a ‘zero deficit’ budget in June which proposes to finance all public recurrent expenditure using its own domestic resources without any recourse to either domestic or foreign borrowing or cuts in public service delivery. The jury is still out on just how Mutharika intends to plug the foreign aid gap in his coffers.

Serving his last term, which expires in 2014, Mutharika is not in danger of being ousted from office. Spirited though the riots were, it is not likely that a resurgence of popular anger will drive him out of power before his due date. The country’s civil society activists have been shaken by the state’s violent response to their protests, with some of their leaders having gone into hiding after Mutharika’s seething accusations of treason against them.

The Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa, says Malawi’s opposition parties have not been able to garner significant national support to effectively challenge the government. ‘While they may be able to boost their positions relative to the ruling party by forming coalitions, many opposition leaders are unwilling to accept an inferior position in an opposition,’ the Institute said, adding that there was also an overall sense of disenchantment with the all parties in the political arena, who are perceived as being distant and unresponsive to the concerns of voters, beset by a lack of accountability and transparency and lacking democratic credentials between and within parties’ internal structures and practices.

The Vice President, Joyce Banda, who Mutharika fired from the DPP last year but remains in her government job owing to Malawi’s constitution, has just formed a new party called the People’s Party with the support of DPP defectors. She had previously been touted as a possible successor to the 77-year old president and it remains to be seen what impact she will have on voters in the coming months.