Socialist Worker

Millions left to starve

Issue No. 1811

WHILE the US and Britain prepare to use vast resources for war, 14 million people in southern Africa have been left to starve. People in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe are particularly affected. Politicians claim that the suffering is because of drought or 'African corruption'. In truth people are dying because they are the subjects of a crazed mass social experiment: take a poor society, let the market rip, and see what happens. Far from showering prosperity on Africa, the market prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have produced bigger mounds of corpses.

Today in Malawi two million people need food aid. Yet earlier this year the IMF told the Malawian government to sell off two thirds of its grain reserves, kept for such emergencies.

They said the government should sell the grain then buy food when necessary-but prices rose fourfold. More recently the IMF and the European Union (EU) told Malawi to sell another 28,000 tonnes of maize to repay debts. Malawi had a system of state marketing boards which could provide subsidised food. The boards prevented a famine during the last great food shortage in Malawi ten years ago.

But under instructions from the IMF and World Bank, state marketing boards have been privatised. Today there is some food available but half of Malawi's population are too poor to buy it. In Malawi between 1998 and 2000 2.8 million farmers received 'starter packs' of free seeds and fertilisers. This led to a bumper crop of 2.4 million tonnes of maize.

But the IMF, World Bank and EU governments worried this was 'distorting the market', so the government restricted the number of farmers receiving these packs. The result was a fall in grain production of one million tonnes, slightly more than Malawi now needs to avoid famine.

South Africa needs four million tonnes of food over the next three months. The country has about 850,000 tonnes of maize for export. Other countries, such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, have exportable surpluses of around 220,000 tonnes between them. Western governments will only give food aid to a handful of organisations in Zimbabwe because of the campaign against Robert Mugabe. This means ordinary Zimbabweans will die.

The famine is about political priorities and the way capitalism works. Clare Short, Britain's international development secretary, talks as if a few technical adjustments over the distribution of aid can bring about a revolution. She utterly ignores the way that the market policies she supports have wrecked African societies.

Western governments and the drug multinationals have allowed AIDS to rampage through the continent. And, for all the promises of debt relief, Western governments and banks still suck vital resources from Africa.

Malawi is still spending as much on debt repayment as it is on the health service. In Zambia, where one million people are HIV positive, debt takes a third more than is spent on health. One hundredth of the resources going into war in Iraq would secure all of the 14 million African lives in danger.

But Bush and Blair would rather let them die than confront the priorities of capitalism.

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