Thursday, September 8, 2011

The hunger, the people and the land

Into mid-2011, the world’s worst food crisis is being felt in East Africa, in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Some quotes below might give an idea of what it is about.
“There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act. 3,500 people a day are fleeing Somalia and arriving in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya that are suffering one of the driest years in six decades. Food, water and emergency aid are desperately needed. By the time the U.N. calls it a famine it is already a signal of large scale loss of life,”
Isaiah Esipisu, Horn Of Africa: Poor Attention to Forecasts to Blame for Famine in Somalia, Inter Press Service, July 21, 2011
 The overall humanitarian requirements for the region this year, according to the UN appeals, are $1.87 billion. These are so far 45 percent funded, leaving a gap of over $1 billion still remaining: gaps of $332m and $296m for the Kenya and Somalia UN appeals respectively, and $398m for the government-run appeal in Ethiopia In the last two weeks there have been new pledges of $205m, leaving a gap of $800m still remaining. The UK has pledged an estimated $145m in the past two weeks - almost 15 percent of what is needed. The EU has pledged around $8m so far, with more expected in the coming days. Spain has pledged nearly $10m, Germany around $8.5m. France has so far not pledged any new money, and Denmark and Italy have said no significant new sums are available.— Donors and governments fail to deliver on East Africa aid effort, Oxfam, July 20, 2011
But of course the idea you get from these is very far from the feeling you would have if you saw the reality on the ground.

Of course, we must act on the immediate humanitarian crisis. But equally we must try to understand what causes this kind of crisis. "Drought" is just a bit to simple, because we are speaking about arid areas, where droughts are normal.

Conflict, for sure plays a major role in this drama. And probably overpopulation and global warming can take some blame. It is possible, that drought has become more severe because of global warming, but even if I do believe in the predictions for global warming, I believe we are a bit too quick to declare all sorts of weather changes as caused by global warming. The reality is that droughts are normal in areas where pastoralism dominates, which is the case in the Horn of Africa. Everywhere, where rainfall has been too little and too erratic for farming, livestock is the "natural", and most resilient, way of farming. Crop production is simply not an option. I was recently in Namibia, one of the driest countries on the planet. As can be seen on the map (from Atlas of Namibia) the "risk" of failure in farming is very high in huge parts and it is only in the north that farming has low risk. Therefore, livestock dominates in Namibia. "200 million people live on pastoralism. This kind of animal production uses ecological niches that would not be suitable for arable farming. Ruminants graze pastures that are no good for arable farming, e.g. too steep, too dry, too cold." (Garden Earth).    

Wealthy people don't starve, not even in Mogadishu.
Most of the starvation is caused  by bad policy and poverty. Amartya Sen showed this convincingly already decades ago, and there is no difference today. In 1981, Sen published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981), a book in which he demonstrated that famine occurs mainly from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food.

"Famine is not a natural disaster - it's our fault" says Simon Levine, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute in an article in New Agriculturist. He doesn't only call for more efficient humanitarian assistance but even more for pro-pastoralist policies based on a greater understanding of nomadic livestock rearing systems and their value, and seeing pastoralism as a solution, not as a problem.
"Pro-pastoralist policies should recognise that nothing else works as well as pastoralism in dryland areas. Policymakers and donors need to understand how pastoralists move, why and when, and how we can intervene to make that better. Ensuring mobility of pastoralists within the country is paramount; cross-border mobility is highly desirable, but much more difficult to achieve."
 Nomads and pastoralist have been squeezed for centuries:
Fights between agrarian societies and hunter and gatherers as well as nomadic pastoralist have been an ever ending story, with prominent examples the conflicts between farmers in the American prairies and first Indians and then ranchers; between Swedish settlers and the reindeer keeping Sami or between the expanding Bantu people in Africa and Batwa (pygmies). Even the story of Cain and Abel is about this same conflict. And everywhere the hunter and gatherers and nomads lost in the long run, even if the nomadic herders, such as the Mongols, for a period could rule. [...] People living on hunting, gathering, fishing and pastoralism have since long seen their customary right being gradually undermined; their land taken and their kids forced into schools. (from Garden Earth
Clearly a blog post like this can't sort out all the complex relations that together throw people into starvation. But most of the problems are caused by bad policies, conflict and poverty, and therefore, the solution are to be found by addressing those. And certainly we should reject the agribusiness lobby's promotion of the African Green Revolution as a solution to the starvation, that is just a pie in the sky or an UFO, or an Unusually Fiendish Opinion.

Some sources with information about the humanitarian crisis

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