MALAWI: More than half the people still living in poverty

6-03-06, 10:14 am

JOHANNESBURG, 2 Jun 2006 (IRIN/PLUSNEWS) - Despite the efforts of the past eight years, little has changed and Malawians are still just as poor as they were, the latest government assessment has revealed.

More than half the country's population continues to live on around 32 US cents a day and just over a fifth of Malawians live on 20 US cents a day.

'Poverty continues to be widespread in Malawi and there has been little or no progress in reducing poverty and inequality since 1998', said the draft Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment (PVA), jointly compiled by the Malawi government and the World Bank.

The report's main source of information was the 2005 Integrated Household Survey (HIS) by the National Statistics Office, the second one ever carried out, which delivered 'the best data on the state of poverty we have ever had', World Bank Country Manager Timothy Gilbo told IRIN.

Comparing the figures with those in the 1998 HIS provided analysts with new insight into prevailing conditions and allowed them to determine what progress had been made. 'Since 1998, not much has really changed,' Gilbo said.

The survey found that 6.4 million people, more than half Malawi's population [52 percent], were living below the poverty line, while 2.7 million, or about one-fifth [22 percent], were experiencing ultra-poverty - 'such dire poverty that they cannot afford to meet even the daily recommended food requirements'. Most of the poor were in rural areas in the southern and northern parts of the country, with the central region slightly better off.

A key factor in Malawi's high and persistent poverty is its very young and rapidly expanding population. With 60 percent of its 12.3 million population aged under 20, according to a 2005 estimate, 'more than half of the poor in Malawi are children'.

'Even though the poverty level remained constant, the data shows that poverty is dynamic - people move into and out of poverty,' Gilbo remarked. The report said this was because Malawi suffered from a 'frequent and widespread existence of shocks - drought, price volatility [mainly food], illness and deaths are the main sources' of changing circumstances.

The most serious challenge facing Malawi was widespread malnutrition: 'chronic malnutrition is endemic - a staggering 44 percent of preschoolers are stunted', the report noted. 'Poor nutrition is surprisingly constant throughout all income levels. This points to other factors next to only lack of food, like the need to diversify diets and education about food,' Gilbo said.

The fight against HIV/AIDS remained a national emergency. 'HIV/AIDS is putting considerable pressure on the public sector - only 31 percent of communities have access to a health clinic, and drugs are not readily available', the survey found.

According to Gilbo, the report highlights the need for better targeting by social protection programmes. 'Community-based programmes have not worked well in hitting the poorest - there are no easy answers in targeting, and this will remain one of the biggest challenges.' Citing the World Food Programme as an example, Gilbo said a lot had been done to improve targeting since 2003.

Economic growth, rather than reshuffling income, would determine whether Malawi managed to lift itself out of poverty, Gilbo said. 'Economic growth is essential, and this is something the government is focusing on,' he said.

The high level of domestic debt, now a dominant feature in Malawi's economy, was hindering growth as well as poverty reduction, the report commented. Interest payments represented an enormous burden - 35 percent of the budget - which should be reduced, and the funds allocated to growth and poverty reduction.