The politics of hunger, Part one
War and corruption, not droughts, are responsible for famines
Last updated Wednesday, Sep. 21, 2011 10:03PM EDT
I have never quite believed that simplistic formula invoked in so many
modern famines: “caused by a severe drought.”
Not that there isn't a severe drought now in southern Somalia, neighbouring
Ethiopia and parts of Kenya. There undeniably is. Last October to December,
rains did not appear at all in the area. The March-April rains this year
were late. My skepticism arises, though, because I come from perhaps the
driest continent on Earth, which has suffered recurrent droughts from
earliest settler experience, including the El Nino-influenced drought that
seemed to run nearly non-stop from the early 1990s to last year. Many of our
farmers were forced off land their families had held for generations.
There has always been drought-induced anguish in the Australian bush. But no
one starves. Malnutrition, undeniably, and particularly in indigenous
communities, but no famine.
How is it the citizens of drought-stricken homelands in Somalia and the
“triangle of death” have none of the guarantees my drought-stricken
compatriots have? It's because, as the famed aphorism of Nobel Prize-winning
economist Amartya Sen puts it, “no famine has ever taken place in the
history of the world in a functioning democracy.”
Similarly, an Irish friend of mine, a respected historian of famine named
Cormac Ó Gráda, writes, “Agency is more important than a food-production
shortfall. Mars counts for more than Malthus.” In contrast to Rev. Thomas
Robert Malthus, the 19th-century population theorist who blamed
overpopulation and land overuse for the Irish famine, Mr. Ó Gráda sees war
and other human actions as the engines of famine. His point is evident in
the Horn of Africa now.
One of the affected areas of Ethiopia is, for example, the Ogaden, whose
people consider themselves kinsman of the Somalis and are similarly Muslim.
It is in their territory that conflict between the Ethiopian army and Somali
rebels has occurred over recent years, with many savageries and violation.
No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning
democracy. — Amartya Sen
The central regime in Addis Ababa has never felt kindly or acted tenderly
toward the Ogadenians anyhow, nor given them a decent share of roads or
clinics or schools. Is it a priority now to feed and care for them?
All famines share common qualities, a similar DNA, that reduce acts of God
like drought from real causes to mere tipping or triggering mechanisms.
Famines often occur where farming and grazing are suddenly disrupted to fit
some ideological plan of the leaders of the country, as in Mao's Great Leap
Forward in the 1950s, Ethiopia in the 1980s and North Korea repeatedly since
Famines also strike in areas where people live in hunger and malnutrition
year after year. Malnutrition is a sensitivity-numbing word – it does not
capture the swollen joints, flaking skin, retarded growth, porous and
fragile bone, diminished height, lethargy and disabling confusion of soul
that characterize it.
As it's been said, a malnourished child can still howl out; a starving one
has no strength to.
As many as 60 per cent of North Korean children aged six months to seven
years were malnourished in 2010, so they were set up to become the victims
of famine over the past year. Once again, ideology and military priorities
offer a better explanation than mere food shortage: The regime's
re-evaluation of its currency wiped out the spending power of families, all
to sustain itself and its army.
Similarly, southern Somalia, according to the International Committee of the
Red Cross, had the highest level of child malnutrition on Earth in July this
year. A few unlucky factors, and malnutrition becomes famine.
People in that rural hinterland already lived off only a few food staples.
Among some pastoral people who survive by livestock holdings, death of
animals by June this year was reaching 60 per cent. The value of a cow
relative to how much grain a family could buy with it had fallen by
two-thirds. Grain and lentils are what farmers live off there. As with the
Irish and their buttermilk and potatoes long ago, the East African diet is
balanced on a two-legged stool. Still, if drought were the cause, we could
just help them until the rains returned. But it's the helping that is
complicated. Climate isn't the complication; humans are.
Refusing aid from an ideological ‘enemy'
The Ethiopian army invaded a civil-war-savaged Somalia in 2006 and, after a
hard-fisted occupation, installed an unpopular and only partly successful
transitional federal government. Assorted militias, such as the
oft-mentioned al-Shabab (“the youth”), retained the hinterland, where
conflicts, raids and molestation of citizens by both sides have been common
Al-Shabab has been driven from Mogadishu, but it is the most commonly cited
military villain in this famine. Al-Shabab believes that many Western
agencies oppose it because of its desire to make Somalia an Islamist state.
Therefore, it restricts the entry of agencies and non-governmental
organizations into its area to those it considers neutral – Red Cross and
Red Crescent in particular. It rules out the World Food Program and UNICEF
and agencies such as CARE. It has created its own Office for the Supervision
to Regulate the Affairs of Foreign Agencies.
There is denial that famine actually exists too. “The UN wants Somalia to be
in famine,” a spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, has said. “They want push
pressure on us through such calls. We agree that there is hunger in some
areas, but there is no famine in Somalia.”
Agencies and aid bodies are not always without their flaws, but it is
al-Shabab, not drought, that stands between the starving and the food.
Al-Shabab not only threatens aid workers but tries to prevent and punish
refugees who try to cross into so-called Christian countries such as
Ethiopia and Kenya.
It must be terrifying for the men, women and children now trying to get into
Kenya to find themselves surrounded by militia men emerging from the thorn
Is the transitional federal government in Mogadishu an improvement or
another face of the problem?
It seems that it is either too venal or too powerless to prevent the plunder
of aid food.
Joakim Gundul, a Kenyan assessor of aid results, says, “While helping
starving people, you are also feeding the power groups who make a business
out of the disaster. … You're saving people's lives today so they can die
How the new honesty might backfire
It seems to me that in earlier famines, this issue of human agency has not
been nearly as honestly and openly discussed by journalists and officials.
K'naan, the famed multitalented Canadian Somali, is rightly appalled at what
he sees as a slow reaction of the world to this crisis, but the question
arises whether the greater honesty about human blame is slowing the
The vigour and enthusiasm that came into play in the West's reaction to the
Ethiopian famines of the early 1980s has not yet appeared.
Aid to Ethiopia lagged in the early phases of that famine too. The West was
dubious about then-president Mengistu Haile Mariam's closeness to the
Soviets until BBC and CBC footage, combined with the involvement of rock
stars and telethons, shamed governments into increasing the flow of aid.
And not only governments: A farmer from Guelph, Ont., Fred Benson,
galvanized by the news from Ethiopia, gave his 107-acre farm to a Mennonite
aid agency for the sake of people whose faces he had never seen.
Yet it wasn't much discussed at the time that Mr. Mengistu was arming his
troops for a so-called Red Star offensive against the Eritrean rebels with
expensive Russian armaments bought with the substance of his starving
With my own eyes, at the time, I saw the astonishing quantities of arms and
aircraft he had brought to Eritrea, when I was caught unexpectedly for the
better part of the week in a besieged town named Nacfa in the Eritrean
As an Eritrean minder told me, “He's blowing schools and clinics out of the
mouth of his cannon.”
At the same time, Mr. Mengistu was putting great emphasis on celebrating the
10th anniversary of his regime, such that Addis Ababa became a Disneyland of
Stalinist achievement in the midst of a hungering populace.
Few voices were raised to tell us all this, or to tell us about the forced
resettlement of millions into unfamiliar country. If we had known it all,
would Fred Benson have been as generous? Would there have been a Bob Geldof?
For us today, unfortunately, this Horn of Africa famine is another in a
string of almost expected events. We expect that the world will get some
emergency aid there. We feel as if we have heard the whole story before. Yet
it is an utterly fresh and terrifying experience for the people of the
“triangle.” They have tried every way of survival. They have skimped at
meals, have seen what crops they could grow wither and have lost their
livestock or tried to sell them in a glutted market. Meanwhile, the grain
shortage sends prices up, and even encourages hoarding by merchants, while
in their huts farmers face the massive question of whether they should eat
next year's seed crop, one of the final acts of familial desperation.
These starving have looked for eyes of undigested grain in cow manure; they
have foraged for wild foods, yehub nuts and berries, in competition with
their neighbours. Any family jewellery has been sold. Many starving women
probably have been forced to make a Sophie's choice, whether to feed a child
likely to die or one not already sick.
And as they slide toward starvation, the devastation of their immune systems
will attract assaults by opportunist bacteria. There's no sense of banal
repetition in their struggles.
Perhaps we must try a new theorem: to try to get the Somalis and the
Ethiopians fed precisely because their governments have not yet created
societies in which supply and support are taken for granted.
Aid agencies could be given breaks from endless pie charts about
administration costs and aid delivery per donor dollar and stop pretending
that they will be permitted to go everywhere they like and to do all the
good they can. They should simply invite us into the general struggle to
deliver aid as energetically, cleverly and well as the malign circumstances
on the desolate ground permit them.
As for the regimes, Mr. Sen's statement glimmers like a tinsel promise, an
undeniable though not immediately useful tool, out there in what aid workers
call “the field.”
But in approaching that dilemma – how to make regimes behave – I have moved
far into “wiser-heads-than-mine” territory. And by the time we solved it,
there would be millions dead in Africa.
Thomas Keneally, an Australian novelist and writer, is the Booker
Prize-winning author of Schindler's Ark (which became the film Schindler's
List), The Great Shame and, recently, Three Famines: Starvation and
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Received on Wed Sep 21 2011 - 15:03:00 EDT