Famine and Future

6 Aug

The Food Voucher

The famine in the Horn of Africa is giving rise not only to terrible stories of refugees, images of dead livestock and indignation over hard-ass Somali militants in Al Shabaab refusing to let international relief organizations distribute food to their starving countrymen, but a debate in the blogosphere about the merits or lack thereof of development aid itself. I have read a couple of interesting posts recently that point out how much worse the situation would be without such aid, using Ethiopia as an example of where the presence of both a functioning government and aid infrastructure is reducing the scale of the disaster to simply a crisis.

Various other sources however, point out other complexities.  Islamic Relief director Jehangir Malik, for example, has been writing in the Guardian about how local Somali NGOs are able to make it to the worst areas of drought, but that they need more resources to purchase more food. There are other articles pointing out how the worst off in the region are its pastoralists, who tend to be ignored as backward nomads, that their ability to move around has been severely curtailed by government policies.

Then there is BBC’s Newsnight investigation that found instances in Ethiopia of development aid being denied to groups opposed to the government. While they also pointed out that emergency aid does seem to be available to everyone, if those allegations are true, they indicate a serious problem for international donors. I myself recently came across a study that showed how small a percentage of Ethiopia’s arable land is actually even made available for agriculture. While all land is public property, the state allows for only 14 million out of 74 million hectares to be cultivated by peasant farmers. At the same time vast expanses of it are being leased to foreign companies to grow everything from flowers to bio-fuels for export.

It is understandable that average people around the globe should be confused about why the situation is so dire, about why in a world where there is plenty of food, millions are starving. Yes, one needs to keep in mind the fact that there is a big difference between emergency aid and long-term development aid, and to my knowledge no one is criticizing the distribution of the former. But why not talk about the need to improve our understanding of development as well as how development itself works?

Because there seems to be a real lack of clarity about the dilemma in the Horn of Africa — other than that it is truly terrible — and all that underlies it. Are we any closer to feeling we have a handle on how to prevent those appalling scenes of death and dying in the future? Despite the coverage and the pleas for donations, my feeling is that the answer so far is no.

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