It feels a little odd to be here in Kenya but not blogging about the famine. To be honest, I don’t know much about food security issues. My work here is not connected to the famine. In parts of the Rift Valley province where I’m living, farmers are actually finding themselves with surplus crops. Nonetheless, the crisis makes daily news here, so I thought it would be worth educating myself and my dear readers a bit.

1. How bad is it?

horn mapThere are a lot of numbers used to describe the scope of this famine. All of the numbers are big: 29,000 children under 5 have died in the past 90 days; more than 12 million people are at risk of death and starvation; 5,000-10,000 could die of starvation in southern Somalia in August. Various measures also get more nuanced, citing the number of people displaced and the levels of malnutrition (especially significant for children). But here’s the basic point: it’s really bad.

2. What caused the famine? How did it get so bad?

The short answer you hear from the television is that the current situation is caused by the worst drought in 60 years. But causality is a funny thing, and it’s always more complicated than it appears.

As noted by Ed Carr, Mark Leon Goldberg and others, the famine is having a dramatically larger impact in Somalia than it’s having in nearby communities in Ethiopia and Kenya, despite essentially the same rainfall patterns across the borders. As Amartya Sen pointed out, famines don’t happen in democracies. More generally, famines don’t happen in places with semi-effective governance and economic institutions. Modern famines are not the result of a lack of food. The world currently has more than enough food for all of its inhabitants. Famines occur because people lack the market and/or political power to access the available food.

So an obvious cause of the famine is failed-state-number-one: Somalia. It’s fashionable to point out that the country’s internationally recognized government has little control over its territory, though some argue that things are looking up due to continued support from other African nations and the broader international community. I’ll come back to Somalia in the next section.

Another cause is the failure to respond early. Although famine was not declared until last month (yep, there’s a technical definition), the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) has been forecasting the possibility of famine since last November. FEWS Net was established after the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s with the expectation that advance warning would allow the world to stop famines before they happen.

There are a myriad of other factors at play as well. William Mosely discusses how the expansion of large-scale commercial farming for export crops has restricted the area available to pastoral communities. Rebecca Sargent hits on this and a dozen other relevant points. Is there a link to climate change? Duncan Green weighs the evidence and comes to a conclusive answer: we don’t know.

3. How is the world responding?

Slowly. There has been an increase since the official declaration of famine and the influx of media and NGOs to the affected areas. However, UN OCHA estimates that US$2.5 billion is needed to respond, but only $1.2 billion has been committed so far.

The response is made more complicated by the presence of Al Shabbab, the militant/terrorist group that controls much of south-central Somalia. Since 2009, Al Shabbab has banned most aid agencies from operating in its territory. The severity of the current crisis might have led to a reversal of that policy, but the group has equivocated. Even if Al Shabbab gives a clear “OK” to aid agencies, there are still plenty of reasons why NGOs and UN agencies hesitate to flood in, including basic logistical and safety concerns, as well as the political and legal risks of engaging with a terrorist organization.

In the face of these constraints, UNHCR has been shipping relief supplies into Mogadishu. Other agencies and NGOs are serving drought-affected populations in Ethiopia and Somali refugees that have made it to camps in Kenya. There has also been a fair amount written on NGO blogs about continuing to focus on long-term food security and resilience.

4. What’s the news coverage been like?

I don’t know what kind of news coverage is being shown on American or European televisions, since I’m here in Kenya. However, when watching KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) and Citizen TV, I see many of the same images of emaciated children and swollen bellies that have characterized American journalism in similar disaster situations (the only difference is that the coverage is more frequent here). So I can no longer chalk such imagery up to Western stereotypes.

There was a scathing commentary in yesterday’s East African that I think is worth sharing: “The unholy alliance in Somalia: Media, donors and aid agencies.” The argument has a lot of logical holes and rhetorical leaps. Nonetheless, the fact that it ran in the major (only?) regional newspaper should say something.

5. How can I help?

I try to avoid fundraising pitches on this blog, but I think this case deserves an exception. There is evidence that the public is responding less to the famine than to other disasters. If you feel moved, please give. Here are a few options.


P.S. Simplistic hopefulness?

Just a tangential note in closing. Images of starving famine victims often reinforce pessimistic stereotypes of hopeless Africans unable to do much for themselves. Against such images, we like to inject nuance and point to the complexity of the situation, in the hope of countering the stereotypes and provoking a better response from the consumers of Western media.

But another possible antidote is to simply combat simplistic hopelessness with simplistic hopefulness. I don’t know if it will actually help. But in any case, here are some simple things that make me smile.

1. Dancing (h/t Africa is a Country)

2. The universal appeal of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies

3. Re-framing

7 thoughts on “Famine

  1. I love your antidote of simplistic hopefulness! What a great idea– I get very tired of the poverty/disaster porn angle and I think this is an amazing counter-balance to that!
    Great blog!

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