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MALAWI: Non-Voters Denied Farm Subsidies

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Sep 25 2009 (IPS) - Gina Champiti, a widowed mother of eight children aged between three and 12 did not register to vote in the May presidential and parliamentary elections. This is going to cost her her livelihood.

Because she does not have a voter identity card, she will no longer be allowed to benefit from the country’s agricultural subsidy.

The fertiliser and seed subsidy programme, introduced in Malawi in 2004, has turned the country into a bread basket for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The programme focuses on smallholder farmers who cannot afford production needs such as seed and fertiliser at normal market prices.

In the past people who were poor and vulnerable were identified by chiefs and district assemblies to benefit from the subsidy. But most beneficiaries were selling the coupons to the "not-so-poor", who would collect the subsidised products for use in their own gardens.

And now, post election, Andrew Daudi, principal secretary in Malawi's Ministry of Agriculture, announced that the 1.6 million farmers to benefit from this year's subsidy will be only those who registered to vote in the presidential elections this year.

"The decision is discriminatory and will make many people suffer. I do not see a connection between registering for elections and agricultural subsidies," said Champiti, whose eight children are aged between three and 12.

Malawi suffered serious food shortages in 2005, and up to five million people were hungry, but just three years later the country produced a bumper harvest attributed to the agricultural subsidy system.

The beneficiaries of the system receive two coupons – one allowing them to buy seed and the other fertiliser at a subsidised rate. Champiti was one of the 1.2 million farmers who benefited from the subsidy.

Champiti told IPS she was too poor to afford fertiliser. "I couldn’t take time out to go and register. I am always busy working to ensure that my children have food," Champiti said.

Daudi said the decision had been made to make sure the government stamped out the fraud that had rocked the programme in the past four years. "The voter identity cards are backed by appropriate data. The number and the name on the card will be used to verify the intended beneficiary," said Daudi. He said this process would help the government in ensure that the coupon was used by the targeted beneficiary only.

Some civil servants administering the programme would also sell the coupons to people not on the list of beneficiaries. Some politicians – especially those within the government – were abusing the system by acquiring coupons and distributing them to family and friends.

Malawi has no national identity card, so the voter registration card fills the gap, and helps stop the ghost beneficiaries, Daudi says.

The Minister of Finance, Ken Kandodo, announced in his Budget speech in June that the government was planning to increase the number of beneficiaries across the country from 1.2 million farming families last year to 1.6 million.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security has the largest share of the Budget, with an equivalent of $149 million for the subsidy programme from the overall national budget of $1.8 billion.

This year families will buy a 50kg bag of fertilizer at a more highly subsidised price of $3.60, down from $5.70 last year. In Malawi up to 60 percent of the population live below the poverty line of $1 a day, according to the United Nations.

In the run-up to the May 19, 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections, the country's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, who calls himself "Destroyer of Hunger" and "Today’s Moses", for "rescuing Malawi from starvation", campaigned heavily on the successes of the subsidy.

But it was not made clear during the campaign period that the voter cards would give access to the subsidies. Mutharika went on to resoundingly win the elections, sweeping up to 67 percent of the total votes cast.

"I could have gone to register if it was made clear to us that the same registration cards would be used to access the farm inputs," said Champiti.

But like Champiti, most people are not happy with the decision to exclude those who did not register to vote, and therefore have no voter cards.

The Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet), a grouping of individuals and NGOs working in the agricultural sector, and which advocates change in policies, practices and attitudes, is also against the change in identifying beneficiaries.

National coordinator for Cisanet Victor Mhoni said the new arrangement would sideline people who deserved the subsidy, and benefit those who were not in need. This would render the programme ineffective.

"The needy who did not register in the elections will not be able to access the subsidy, and this is not right," said Mhoni.

Cisanet is recommending that government should have a separate record of subsidy beneficiaries instead of using the voters' roll. "The people who need the subsidy are not too many, and government can easily have them registered," Mhoni said.

Clement Mlombwa, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Agriculture who belongs to the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP), has also spoken against the new way of distributing subsidies, saying it might not be the answer to the hitches that have dogged the programme.

"The voter registration cards would simply grant evidence of the beneficiary being Malawian, but not discourage fraudulent acts," said Mlombwa.

Opposition politicians, led by MCP president John Tembo, have been against the targeted subsidy, and have called for a universal subsidy. But government disagrees, saying, among other things, that if the programme were open to everybody it would be abused.

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