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Drought does not equal famine

August 17, 2011

The famine in the horn of Africa has been all over the news recently. Most articles about this issue state that the famine has been caused by a horrible drought. But what if that is not true? What if the famine was manmade? Does that change things?

According to World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya Wolfgang Fengler, “This crisis is manmade…Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”

In a post about the famine, Edward Carr states

The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA [Horn of Africa] situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Here is one of the images of the region:

Over at his blog, Owen Barder quotes the Ed Carr post above, but also discusses why countries like Ethiopia are not experiencing the same problems that Somalia is facing.

If you are looking for a one-stop source that answers many of the questions you may have about the famine, you will find it over at Find What Works. One of the issues it discusses is how the world, yet again, failed to respond when the first signs of a famine appeared:

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.

I think one of the best parts of this post is at the end, where the author includes three videos that attempt to provide more than just a single story (a subject I have discussed previously) of starving famine victims that only ends up reinforcing “pessimistic stereotypes of hopeless Africans unable to do much for themselves.” I have included the videos below, just in case you don’t feel like clicking over to see them.

The biggest reason we should care about the true causes of famines is that if they are cause by droughts, then there is really nothing we can do about it, but if they are indeed caused by bad policies, bad governance, and human failures, then we stand a chance of being able to prevent the next one from happening. But that will require much more on our parts than we have wanted to provide to date.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 17, 2011 6:58 pm

    Reminds me of the Bono quote you posted recently: things are almost always more complicated than we’d like to even admit, much less get involved in. Fascinating FEWS map above, btw. Thanks, Jon.

  2. Shanda permalink
    August 18, 2011 7:27 pm

    I so very much love these videos.
    The information is pretty interesting too.

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