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Malawi’s hunger season and crime: any relationship?

5 February 2012
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A colleague’s office was burglarized in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital) earlier this week. Another colleague told me a story of a home in Zomba she stayed in just before she left in December — it was burglarized in January. I was reminded of the spree of robberies in Zomba in 2010 (that deeply affected someone dear to me). Is it coincidence that these events happened during the hunger season in Malawi?

"Further Explanation Necessary" by John Duffell, shared with CC license via Flickr

I can’t find crime statistics from Malawi. (If I could, I’d be suspicious of it given my various encounters with Malawi Police. And, before you send me there, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime does not have data for Malawi.) The closest thing I found was collected in 2004, when researchers conducted the Malawi National Crime Victimisation Survey. Though useful in giving a snapshot of public experience with crime, the measure doesn’t vary over time — the questions were asked in 2004 about crimes respondents were victims of in the last 12 months. Thus, there’s no way to pinpoint whether the crimes occurred during a specific time of the year.

I searched for time-variant data because I’m curious whether there are cycles of crime/violence associated with cycles of food availability/price. Relatedly, I wonder if there is a relationship between the intensity of the hunger season and the intensity of crime.

November to March is known as Malawi’s hunger season. It is the time of year when many families run short on their food stores and when Malawians are still awaiting the next harvest.

When I was in Malawi in August, I bumped into Stephen Carr, a former agriculturalist with the World Bank and long-time resident of Malawi. We chatted about the foreign exchange shortage and the withdrawal of government budget support by donors. It was before the planned protests scheduled for August 17, and I wondered aloud whether these issues were going to embolden Malawians to take to the streets. Carr did not seem convinced, but said the real problem was on the horizon: the hunger season. The most recent update from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) shows parts of Southern Malawi already reaching the level of “Stress” for food insecurity, and one area characterized as “Crisis.”

Carr also talked about the following harvest, predicting it would be much smaller than in years past because of the foreign exchange shortfall and a reduced amount of fertilizer the government would be able to purchase to redistribute to small-scale farmers. Later it was announced the amount of fertilizer being purchased for the subsidy program was greatly reduced from last year.

If there is any relationship between the hunger season and crime in Malawi, as bad as it is right now, it has the potential to be worse this time next year.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 February 2012 1:17 pm

    Always love bumping into Stephen! What a legend, can’t say i’ve met anyone with so much wisdom and passion for Malawi and agriculture as him. I can remember having similar discussions about forex with him back in June. Really interesting thoughts, and it would be great if someone did some research on this, that – like you’ve highlighted – understands the context of hunger season and looks at crime levels accordingly.

    Even more interesting is the pattern of protest – why did so many turn out in July’s day of protests and yet so much dissapointment in terms of postponed protests in August and then September… Indicates that it is not as simple as citizens feeling compelled to protest based on the fuel/forex/governance problems and there is something else at play…

    • 6 February 2012 10:48 pm

      @graduateinafrica: thanks for reading the blog and welcome to the world of blogging! (so far, I’m enjoying your posts — keep ’em coming.)

      I just wrote another post about the clashes between vendors and police in Lilongwe today. Though the protests “organized” by civil society “leaders” have been cancelled twice now, that hasn’t stopped other groups from demonstrating (i.e., court staff or Shoprite workers).

      I’m working on an academic paper with a couple of colleagues that will examine protest behavior in contemporary Malawi more closely. Once we have a draft ready for sharing, I’ll be sure to include it. My intuition is that people are fed up, but some of them more than others because they are affected more. Especially considering Diana Cammack’s recent report, I think there’s likely more agitation among the middle class in Malawi.

      Tidzaona!

  2. 5 February 2012 1:32 pm

    I don’t know if there is a relationship between crime and poverty (or food insecurity) over time, but our MGAPE colleague Christine Moser (along with Marcel Fafchamps) has worked on the relationship between crime and poverty in a cross-sectional setting using data from the commune census in Madagascar. Their main finding actually is that crime mostly occurs in rural areas, as a consequence of isolation. Their paper was published in 2003 in the Journal of African Economies in case you are interested:

    http://jae.oxfordjournals.org/content/12/4/625.short

    • 6 February 2012 10:49 pm

      Thanks, Marc, for sharing the link to Christine’s paper w/Fafchamps. I’m going to tuck it away for that magical point in the future when I will have time to think about a new project.

  3. 6 February 2012 1:36 pm

    We should talk about this if you find anything. I’ve been wanting to write a paper on the relationship between weather and rebels/the government starting another round of violence in DRC for several years now. Seems to be partly about not wanting to fight in the rain, but that’s not the whole story.

    • 6 February 2012 10:51 pm

      Interesting. I know almost nothing about fighting (except when a girl says something mean about my boots). Still, I’d expect one side might see an advantage to the rain — it would allow them to catch the opposition off-guard, kinda Tet Offensive-like.

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