With hunger becoming a perennial problem, the Tonse Alliance administration has failed to live up to its promise to ‘very shortly’ enact a law that could improve access to food and improve people’s nutrition status.
This delay, which comes amidst research revelations that the country’s economy loses nearly K150 billion annually due to effects of malnutrition, has triggered rage from advocates of the proposed legislation.
In his inaugural State of the Nation Address in 2020, President Lazarus Chakwera said his government was pushing to pass into law the Food and Nutrition Bill to improve nutrition status in the country.
He pledged in Parliament: “To provide a legislative framework for these efforts we will be tabling the Food and Nutrition Bill before this House very shortly.”
However, three years down the line, the Bill has not been tabled in the National Assembly and news coming from the Ministry of Justice is that it is far from being ready.
The ministry’s spokesperson Pilirani Masanjala said in a response to our questionnaire on Wednesday: “It’s still with us at the ministry- still in the drafting stage.”
Meanwhile, the Civil Society Organisation Nutrition Alliance (Csona) has condemned government for failing to live up to its promise.
“We say that the promise to have the Bill enacted shortly has not yet materialised as the Bill has not yet reached Parliament for discussion and passing three years after the commitment was made by H.E (His Excellency the President).
“Apart from the HE’s commitment, Malawi through the minister of Health also committed to pass the Food and Nutrition Bill by end of 2022, a commitment made at the Nutrition for Growth Summit that was hosted by Japan in 2021.
“This is now 2023 and we have one more sitting of Parliament. This is a worrisome trend as we may struggle to trust government processes as regards high level commitments such as enacting the Bill into law,” said Csona advocacy and campaigns officer Jean Banda.
She said for a country that suffers hunger every year, there was a need for the Food and Nutrition law to be enacted.
Banda said: “The Bill once enacted, will operationalise the right to food and good nutrition into law. Which means government as the major duty bearer will have the obligation of facilitating a conducive environment which will enable Malawians to feed themselves with dignity.
“While government strives to eliminate hunger and food insecurity, you have noted that the issue of hunger and households being food insecure is very common, a sign that government is not doing enough to reverse the trend on food and security for Malawi.”
On average, 2.5 million Malawians face food shortages annually, according to the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee reports published every year.
For the past three years, government has spent nearly K180 billion to provide food relief under the Lean Season Food Insecurity Response Programme. It spend K27 billion in 2021, K76 billion in 2022 and K74 billion in 2023, according to the Department of Disaster Management Affairs reports
The government’s Department of Nutrition, HIV and Aids in 2014 drafted a proposed Bill whose other contents included establishment of a fund to advance “access to quality food and nutrition.”
It was later submitted to the Ministry of Justice which is tasked to draft the Bill which is submitted to the Cabinet for approval.
The proposed Bill outlines its objectives as “an Act providing for the right to food and nutrition; labelling and fortification of food; provision of nutrition in schools; the establishment of the National Nutrition Council and the Food and Nutrition Fund.”
The draft Bill compels the government to promote “the availability of school meals in public schools and other educational establishments; and encourage learners in attendance at those schools and other educational establishments to consume school meals.”
It further empowers the schools’ headmasters to ensure that the food provided on the premises complies “with nutritional requirements specified by the minister under regulation.”
State funded Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) is among those irked with the delays to enact the law. It has included the issue in its report recently filed to the United Nations committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
It reports: “Food Security Bill was drafted. The draft law was named the Food and Nutrition Bill; however, it remains a draft legislation in 2022.
“This is despite the several commitments government has made to ensure that the Bill is enacted into law to guarantee the right to food for all, with the recent one being at the Nutrition for Growth Global Summit that the Bill would be enacted by 2022.
“In the context of continued delays to enact the Food and Nutrition Bill, the commission recommends that the committee should call upon the Government of Malawi to expedite the enactment of this Bill into law.”
The Ministry of Agriculture had not responded to our questionnaire as we went for press.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Committee on Health chairperson Mathews Ngwale said his team is following up on the Bill as it has taken over the roles of the dissolved Committee on Nutrition and HIV.
“The defunct committee’s roles have gone to my committee. We shall be doing handovers soon. Through that, we will learn how far we have gone with the Bill. We will pursue the matter from where our colleagues stopped,” he said.
Ngwale was quick to point out that lack of legislation on food and nutrition was affecting the health of many Malawians.
“If we have this law in place, the food and nutrition provision will improve and in turn reduce sicknesses and expenditure on health,” he said.
A study titled the Cost of Hunger in Africa: The Social and Economic Impact of Child Undernutrition in Malawi revealed that the country losses K150 billion due to effects of nutrition challenges.
The report published in 2015 on the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs run website https://reliefweb.int/ attributes the losses to child under-nutrition through increased healthcare costs, additional burdens to the education system and lower productivity by the country’s workforce.
The proposed Bill was also formulated as a response to the recommendations made by the UN for government to establish a framework law on the right to food to enhance inter-sectoral coordination.
The UN envisaged that the law would enhance transparency, accountability and inclusiveness as well as non-governmental stakeholders’ involvement in policy-making.