Whose fault is the famine in the Horn of Africa?
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It has been more than 20 years since the last time famine wracked Africa, but today the world is once again faced with pictures of stick-thin children with bloated bellies as hunger grips the Horn of Africa.
Right now, almost 12m people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and, most of all, Somalia are in urgent need of food aid. The United Nations has declared a famine in Somalia, the first time in 30 years that such a declaration has been made, and many thousands have died of hunger throughout the region. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the crisis, and refugee camps are overflowing with people fleeing from starvation at home.
Aid agencies are overwhelmed and underfunded. For over a year, warnings have been sounded about the impending disaster by organisations like USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). However, thanks to the financial crisis and the subsequent global recession, donor countries in the rich world have been slow to offer money. Less than half of the $2.5bn that aid agencies have requested has been committed, and it seems likely that the money will run out long before the need does unless more help is forthcoming.
The situation is horrific, and at a time like this, one of the natural human responses is to look for reasons behind the horror. In the case of the food crisis in East Africa, there are a number of potential villains.
The most common explanation for the famine, and the simplest, is that the region is two years into its worst drought in 60 years. The last two rainy seasons utterly failed to live up to their name, and, lacking water, crops and livestock began to die. Observers estimate that people in the worst-hit areas of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have lost up to 60% of their livestock, and crop failures have made grain a scarce commodity. Widespread drought-related food shortages have meant that people simply cannot feed themselves.
But while there's no doubt that the drought is a key factor causing the famine, it's a gross simplification to just leave it at that. After all, droughts happen everywhere - America has had several severe droughts, yet it has been a long time since the US faced a famine. To understand why the Horn is so vulnerable that a couple of dry years can cause a crisis, we must look to politics and economics for the explanation.
Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously argued that famines are fundamentally caused by a lack of democracy. Wrote Sen, "Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort."
When a country has a healthy political system, government does everything possible to prevent citizens from starving to death - this is one reason why droughts in America and Europe don't generally result in famines. In the countries of the Horn, however, politics are not all that healthy.
The worst example is obviously Somalia, where there is practically no government to speak of. The worn-ravaged nation is a patchwork of rebel strongholds, and unsurprisingly, the main reason that Somalia is ground zero of the famine is that rebel groups and leaders are actively preventing food relief from circulating, barring access for aid agencies, and generally making things worse.
But even in better-governed Kenya and Ethiopia, the tepid response from government has been a key factor in the development of the crisis. Both those countries have the resources to prevent famine, but entrenched political problems have made government slow to respond. When looking for villains, parliament is a good place to start.
Yet even this isn't the whole story, entrenched poverty has played a role in creating this crisis too. Drought-related food shortages have pushed up food prices in the region, and since most of the region's people are desperately poor, they have no capacity to absorb the increased cost. The food is available, but people cannot afford it. This again reflects a massive failure on the part of regional leaders, who have failed to create a pro-growth environment that would have raised incomes and left people better able to cope with cyclical problems.
The famine in East Africa is a major catastrophe, and the world must rally to save as many lives as possible by supporting relief efforts. But attention must also be paid to the deeper systemic problems that have made what should have been a minor blow into a deadly crisis. Only then can future famines be prevented.
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