current affairs development food poverty

Why are there still famines in Africa?

According to the Disasters Emergency Committee, donations towards aid for Africa’s current famine are far below the totals raised for the Asian Tsunami, Haiti, or Pakistan, even though more people are affected.

I wonder why. Is it bad timing, a disaster in the middle of an economic crisis, with people holding onto their cash? Is it the lack of compelling footage, or the absence of drama? Is it because it’s Africa, which so still so misunderstood? Or is disaster fatigue the biggest problem? Talking about it with friends, there’s a sense of “them again?”, or “how come they haven’t sorted that out yet?”

So why are there still famines in Africa? And is there anything we can do about it?

There’s a whole variety of reasons, but the key factor in this particular incidence is drought. Droughts are not uncommon in the Horn of Africa. In the past, they occurred fairly regularly, about once every six to ten years, and people had adapted to the cycle. Living lightly on the land, the region’s pastoral communities were able to shift the balance between small scale farming and raising lifestock, moving to find pasture, or falling back on wild foods. However, this year’s drought is the second year or failed rains in a row, and in some parts of the affected region, the third. Local adaptation strategies were sufficient when the droughts came every decade, but they are now much more frequent, with no time to recover in-between.

Naturally, the climate change question has to be asked, and there are telltale patterns. Temperatures in Ethiopia are 1.3C hotter than in 1960 (pdf), 1C in Kenya. Rainfall patterns are more contentious, but while it appears the total amount of rainfall is fairly constant, it is less predictable and more extreme.

This is obviously not just an environmental problem however. Somalia is one of the least developed places in the world, and infrastructure is practically non-existent in much of the country. It’s also unstable, dangerous, and a really difficult place to deliver emergency aid, let alone long term development. Northern Kenya is little better, remote and under-resourced compared to the coastal and southern regions – pastoral people are easier to ignore. Poverty and political instability exacerbate the likelihood of famine in the first place and hamper relief efforts, and as Duncan Green reminds us, “famines do not occur in functioning democracies.”

The are external reasons too. Unfortunately, aid for agriculture has been in decline for years (pdf). This trend needs to be reversed, with much more development aid given towards agriculture and increased food sovereignty. With many experts predicting falling yields in a warming climate, this is doubly important.

Sometimes, attempts to help actually make things worse – emergency food aid usually given in kind rather than in cash. This undermines local farmers, leading to stockpiles of uneaten grain in countries with starving populations, while free American and European grain is trucked in from abroad. If farmers can’t sell their grain, they go bust, compounding the problem for next time.

It’s also a whole lot slower to ship grain from overseas when there are stocks nearby, so it doesn’t make any sense for the recipient country. But that’s not the point – if subsidised farmers in the Western world weren’t able to dump their stocks in food aid, the market price would collapse. Over-producing farmers need the government to buy up surpluses and give it away, no matter how counter-productive it may be. George W Bush tried repeatedly to reform this situation, much to his credit. He got nowhere, stalled by the representatives of the plains states and the agricultural lobbyists.

In short, the current famine is a combination of environmental factors, poverty, corruption and instability on the ground, compounded by political intransigence and bad aid policy in the West.

There are things that can be done. Since the droughts will continue in future, building community resilience is vital. Better water management is a good place to start, with more boreholes and pumps and pipes to bring water closer to the people that need it. Without infrastructure, simple, low costs solutions need to be prioritised. Practical Action is providing training for local technicians to maintain solar pumps, for example, and building a network for spare parts.

Agricultural production can be boosted by providing better seed, especially drought resistant varieties of key staples. Providing local storage facilities would help to safely store crops on the good years, as wastage remains a serious problem. Since the affected areas are heavily dependent on lifestock herding, better animal husbandry techniques would be a good investment, along with veterinary services, and education on grasslands management.

At the national level, regional grain exchanges and futures contracts would protect farmers – good years can be just as harmful as bad ones if everybody attempts to sell at the same time. The price can fall so low that farmers don’t make enough to provide for themselves, or to buy seed for the next year. Micro-insurance for farmers may also be an option.

In the longer term, the governments of the affected areas need to pay more attention to their further flung citizens, and need to be supported to do so. Without decent roads and the rule of law, there’s little hope of reducing the chances of future famines.

That’s for the future. Right now, it’s an emergency. If you haven’t made a donation yet, please do so here.

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