The disaster unfolding across the Horn of Africa is a man-made catastrophe that reflects decisions by developed countries about poverty, war and climate change

The harrowing images from the Horn of Africa are all too familiar – silent columns of the severely malnourished converging on refugee camps that are already overcrowded and struggling to cope. The United Nations has finally declared that parts of Somalia are suffering not just a food crisis, but a famine.

While the emergency relief work carried out by agencies in the region such as World Vision is admirable and undeniably bring relief to a few, calls for governments and individuals to step up their charitable donations are simply not enough.

International NGOs and the media must do more to expose why famine is occurring in the twenty first century in the first place. Attributing the plight of the millions at risk of starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya to ‘drought’ or ‘instability’ as many well-meaning NGOs often do is both over-simplistic and misleading. It also diverts understanding away from the historical context that has led to this point. The disaster unfolding across the Horn of Africa is a man-made catastrophe that reflects the prevailing inequitable global economic system, wider geopolitical considerations, and climate change caused by policies in the industrialized world.

Globally, there is a food surplus. Yet much of this sits rotting in warehouses, while the food price index of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has reached record highs. Why is this happening?

At least part of the blame must go to banks and hedge funds that are earning huge profits from speculating on food prices in unregulated financial markets. Among the chief culprits are Barclays Capital, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. This ‘food speculation’ has contributed to driving up the cost of food staples across the world, making food unaffordable to the most vulnerable.

According to the Director of the World Development Movement, “the lack of transparency in these markets bears worrying resemblance to the behaviour that led to the 2008 financial crash. Like any irrational asset bubble, the investors pile their money in for profits, in spite of the consequences” – in this case, human misery and suffering.

Sitting next to the sea lanes of the oil-rich gulf, Somalia’s geo-strategic position has contributed to it being subject to foreign meddling over many decades.  In 2006, the United States sponsored an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that was disastrous for both African countries.

Under the guise of the struggle against terrorism, the United States continues its military involvement in Somalia. Earlier this month, unmanned drones (costing US$ 6 million each) fired Hellfire missiles (costing US $60,000 each) at ‘suspected Islamist insurgents’ in the south of Somalia. The Obama administration continues to prop up warlords in the Transitional Federal Government and also maintains a CIA prison facility at Mogadishu’s International Airport where targeted militants are ‘rendered’.

Somalia may be undergoing civil turmoil and instability but the murky role of the United States must not be airbrushed from the country’s narrative.

A growing body of experts believe that the drought wracking East Africa is a result of climate change. The Horn of Africa is accustomed to scarce water supplies but the pattern of rainfall is changing. According to the UNICEF spokesman for the area, “these recurrent droughts used to happen every 5-10 years but what we see now is it basically every other year…an indication of climate change conditions.” In short, our high carbon emission way-of-life may have directly contributed to the devastation of crops, livestock and human lives across the Horn of Africa. If this is an inconvenient truth, it is also perhaps the reason why reporting of this crisis has largely failed to draw any attention to the link between the drought and climate change.

Pulling out our wallets in response to appeals from international aid agencies may help ameliorate some of the suffering in East Africa. It is certainly better than doing nothing. But at the end of the day, only an end to costly imperialist wars and a complete re-ordering of the global food distribution system based on human need, not profits for a few, will eradicate famine once and for all.

A recent study estimated that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost almost $4 trillion. While no one seems to know how much NATO has spent bombing Libya (it is surely in the hundreds of millions of dollars), neither NATO nor the United States has provided anything remotely close to the funds necessary to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the Horn of Africa. It is patently clear that control over oil and resources takes precedence over saving (African) human lives.

The world today produces more than enough to feed, house and provide basic healthcare and education to the entire global population. This task should not be left to charities.

As international citizens, it is our collective obligation to ensure that the fruits of modernity are enjoyed more equitably by all the world’s peoples. International humanitarian NGOs need to take a clear and unequivocal stand on this. Otherwise they are nothing but the human face of a rapacious, globalized capitalism – and as such, they are arguably complicit in the very suffering they are seeking to ameliorate.


Comments (3)

by Rab McDowell on August 04, 2011
Rab McDowell

I came to this post late and have only just found it.

When I saw the first line I was pleased that someone finally had the gumption to admit that this famine was manmade, or at least greatly magnified by man.
I was then dumbstruck to find that, while Sanji conceded that it was a manmade catastrophe, he blamed almost all of it on the west, or western capitalism, or western resource management, or western induced climate change.
Hardly a mention of the most fundamental underlying cause. The lack of stable and good governance. The political unrest from factional fighting has made it impossible for Somalis to build markets and systems that would allow Somalis to better use of their resources.

I read recently that there has never been a famine in a democracy.   That is the message we need to take on board.

by on August 05, 2011

I wonder if Robert missed the point. Sanji has indeed mentioned the already well-known role of governance in famine. But his emphasis seems to be more useful than that. Some might argue that the governance issue props Westerners who throw their hands up in helpless innocence. Sanji has pointed out that we carry greater responsibility, and there is more we can do.

by Sanji Gunasekara on August 08, 2011
Sanji Gunasekara

Thanks for your comments. Robert, firstly, I never once refer to the 'West' in my entire post so your synoposis of my piece is inaccurate. Second, I agree that the lack of 'stable and good governance' (defined by whom I wonder?) is a fundamental problem in Somalia. But have you ever paused to consider the root causes of this? The 'factional fighting' you speak of has been exacerbated by the actions of other actors - specially that of the United States and its 'war on terror' foreign policy. The US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia (and continuing assasinations of suspected Islamists) has fuelled support for the increasingly militant al-Shabaab. Thirdly, I don't share the faith you appear to place in the 'markets' to address Somalia's woes. I wonder if you are aware that Somalia was self-sufficient in food until the late 1970s, despite recurrent droughts. Ten years of IMF-prescribed structural adjustment programmes actually laid the foundations for the country’s transition towards economic dislocation and social chaos.The claim that there has bever been a famine in a democracy is an interesting one but subject to contention. The Bihar famine of 1966-67 in India, the world's largest democracy, comes to mind. Over the last two decades, authoritarian China has done much better than democratic India in reducing malnutrition rates among their populations. Lucy, I do think Robert has indeed missed the point. There is more we can do. For starters, going beyond the oversimplistic belief that 'democracy' is the sole panacea for all the world's troubles.


Two articles that may be of interest:

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