4 July 2009

Hope casts a nuclear shadow

By Marguerite Finn

Yesterday, I found the perfect quotation for the anxious and disillusioned times we live in.

"Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympus. Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint has gone from men, and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth. Men's judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and men no longer recognise the rules of conduct or acts of piety."

(Theognis of Megara, Greek Poet, 6th Century BC)

According to Greek legend, Hope was the last 'gift' to be let out of Pandora's Box. We consider ourselves lucky that Hope decided to remain with us. Today, she can be seen working indiscriminately in many different guises.

Hope has helped one nation feed itself and break away from a culture of dependency. Malawi is a landlocked, crowded country in southern Africa. Agriculture is the foundation of Malawi's economy, employing 80% of the country's workforce and responsible for 85% of export earnings. Malawi's main exports are tobacco, tea, sugar and cotton. The average size of smallholder farms is less than one hectare, which must be continuously cropped to feed the farmer's family.

In 2004-5, a prolonged drought brought about famine, which left half the population dependent on food aid. This drought was a watershed. It changed Malawi forever. Malawi's far-sighted President Bingu wa Mutharika decided that the country had had enough negative interference from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank and that the Malawians understood their own problems better than others and were best placed to find solutions. For decades, in the guise of economic assistance, the IMF's prescription for economic growth was full 'liberalisation' (privatisation) of the markets, cuts to social services, high interest rates and the removal of all agricultural subsidies.

President Mutharika, an economist by profession and an optimist by nature, was well aware that government subsidies to the agricultural sector were commonplace in Europe and the United States and decided to do what developed nations practiced – rather than what they preached. Facing down foreign criticism, his government initiated a subsidy system under which farmers received coupons to buy subsidised fertilisers and seeds. All farmers were eligible to receive the subsidy and, despite the rough nature of rural roads, the Government undertook the Herculean task of the transportation and distribution of the coupons down to village chief level. It worked. Maize production soared and as the success of the changed agricultural strategies became evident, foreign opposition withered. Malawi needs 2.2 million tonnes of maize annually to be self-sufficient but in 2005 only managed to produce 1.2 million tonnes. By 2007, production was 3.2 million tonnes, enabling exports to neighbouring countries – particularly Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Child hunger declined to such an extent that the UN Children's Fund diverted three tonnes of powdered milk (used for seriously malnourished children) to Uganda, after its representative in Malawi declared: "We won't need to use it". Malawi's National Food Reserve felt able to export 286,589 tonnes of maize to Zimbabwe in 2007 and the UN World Food Programme trucked another 32,363 tonnes of Malawian maize to Zimbabwe later that year. Subsidising fertilisers turned Malawi from supplicant to exporter. The subsidy system is not perfect – there are instances of coupons being stolen or forged - but on the whole, it works and enabled a miraculous turnaround in the fortunes of Malawi.

There's one blot on this hopeful horizon – the development of a uranium mine in Malawi, threatening havoc including the radioactive pollution of Lake Malawi, Africa's third largest source of fresh water.

Will the nuclear industry's greed bequeath another ambiguous 'gift' from Pandora's Box?

No comments: