Archive for Famine

Wait, What?

Read this headline twice:

Somali fighting and rain ‘worsens drought crisis’

Yeah, I hate it when it rains during a drought. It ruins a good tan.


Glass Half Empty

I’m old enough to remember Biafra. Yeah, that was a good idea.

So, it takes more than your run-of-the-mill famine to get my attention.

750,000 is a good (I mean bad) start.

But assigning blame? Convince me:

[H]ere is my top 10 compilation of alleged culprits for your consideration – drawn from conversations with experts, diplomats, Somali officials, foreign aid workers and some of the hungry themselves.

I will leave the blindingly obvious – the drought itself – out of it. But please weigh in with your own lists or arguments.

1. The US – only interested in Somalia in relation to the “war on terror”, piracy and oil – according to many.

Washington is extremely squeamish about allowing even a cent of aid money to get into the hands of al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group which controls large parts of Somalia and is linked to al-Qaeda.

It results in a kind of ambivalent attitude to aid in Somalia that has hamstrung plenty of crucial humanitarian programmes.

“The Americans want to be half pregnant,” was how one top European official put it to me, in disgust.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than blaming the current regime in Washington. And in that category, nothing gives me greater pleasure than pointing out this regime’s betrayal of Africa (like a half-brother), especially compared to the previous administration (see fight against AIDS).

But seriously? The US is the number one culprit in the pending famine in Somalia? How about Somalia itself? And by quoting an anonymous “European official”, you’ve lost me.

What else you got?

2. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) – the one organisation with the real muscle to end the famine, but because it is heavily dependent on US funding, and tied up in beltway politics, WFP has struggled to secure the necessary guarantees to access al-Shabab territories.

To be fair, it is a lot more complicated than that – as I’ve seen first hand. WFP has had many workers killed in Somalia – giving it every reason to be cautious.

Oh, so now we’re being fair. Wouldn’t it be fair to mention the USA’s history in Somalia?

4. Al-Shabab – they have killed aid workers and blocked outside help from getting in. What more is there to say?

Well, I’d say place it a lot higher than No. 4.

6. The media: which brings us neatly on to journalists. We are, as one leading humanitarian official told me – with a mixture of flattery and frustration – absolutely crucial in all this.

The UN can produce endless, detailed documents, but the politicians who make the big decisions only react when they see it on the television or the front page.

To be fair to the media, since we’re all about being fair, they’ve been obsessing elsewhere in Africa, most notably Darfur. And if you think the media ignored Somalia, ask someone from the Congo about what’s been ignored there, if there’s anyone left alive.

9. Climate change – if you accept the science, then you have to accept that these droughts are going to be coming thick and fast in the coming decades. And we all share a responsibility for that.

Then again, I understand that Lower Shabelle – now labelled a famine zone – had a bumper harvest last year.

What? That makes no sense. How do you go from bumper crop to famine in a year?

10. Population growth – this is crucial. In areas of northern Kenya the population has reportedly doubled in the past decade.

“Twice as many people, but the same number of livestock. This is unsustainable,” a UN agriculture expert told me.

Only the BBC could bury the lead like that. Somalia, perennially close to the edge in the best of times, has outbred its resources. Ordinarily, I’m not a Malthusian—I don’t buy the disaster scenarios that mankind will strip the planet of the resources we need to live. But I totally accept the concept in small pockets. The Horn of Africa isn’t exactly moist; it’s not a question of if famines will happen there, but when.

So, it’s really kind of silly assigning blame. You can’t have that many people living that kind of lifestyle in that part of the world and not, eventually, see them die off in large numbers.

But since we are assigning blame, let’s add a few more culprits:

The energy stored in a bushel of corn can fuel a car or feed a person. And increasingly, thanks to ethanol mandates and subsidies in the U.S. and biofuel incentives in Europe, crops formerly grown for food or livestock feed are being grown for fuel. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent estimate predicts that this year, for the first time, American farmers will harvest more corn for ethanol than for feed. In Europe some 50% of the rapeseed crop is going into biofuel production, according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe, while “world-wide about 18% of sugar is being used for biofuel today.”

In one sense, this is a remarkable achievement—five decades ago, when the global population was half what it is today, catastrophists like Paul Ehrlich were warning that the world faced mass starvation on a biblical scale. Today, with nearly seven billion mouths to feed, we produce so much food that we think nothing of burning tons of it for fuel.

Or at least we think nothing of it in the West. If the price of our breakfast cereal goes up because we’re diverting agricultural production to ethanol or biodiesel, it’s an annoyance. But if the price of corn or flour doubles or triples in the Third World, where according to Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe people “are spending 80% of [their] disposable income on food,” hundreds of millions of people go hungry. Sometimes, as in the Middle East earlier this year, they revolt.

“What we call today the Arab Spring,” Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe says over lunch at Nestle’s world headquarters, “really started as a protest against ever-increasing food prices.”

Add to that, especially in Europe, a paralyzing fear of genetically modified crops, or GMOs. This refusal to use “available technology” in agriculture, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe contends, has halted the multi-decade rise in agricultural productivity that has allowed us, so far, to feed more mouths than many people believed was possible.

Ethanol subsidies: what a load of horse crap. Actually, horse crap would make a better fuel than corn, and you can’t eat it, either.

And while I may pay extra to buy an heirloom tomato (or grow one myself), do nomadic Somali tribesmen really have a choice? Let me answer that: no! You want to eat, you’ll eat what I offer. And if all I have to offer is food grown via genetic modifications to make it hardier or more prolific to feed your sorry a**, then you’ll eat it and like it. Or starve.

How hard is this?