Malawi’s hunger season and crime: any relationship?
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?
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.