New Internationalist

Hunger Myths

Issue 238

new internationalist
issue 238 - December 1992

Hunger myths
Media images of suffering in the Horn of Africa are constructed
for maximum emotional impact but often feed popular misconceptions
about why people are starving - and who is responsible.

"There's just not enough food to go around"

Reality: Absolute food shortages are rare. Rich people never starve. Poor people do. Starvation is a result of unequal power in the market made worse by drought, war and ecological collapse. Some people in Somalia are starving in relief camps on the outskirts of towns where the markets are full of food. The Horn contains some of the most productive food-growing regions in Africa, like the Nile provinces in Sudan and Gojam in Ethiopia. But their prosperity does not benefit less fortunate regions.

"The main problem with these countries is their bureaucratic fat"

Reality: Austerity programmes inspired by the International Monetary Fund have had little effect in cuffing waste and bureaucracy but have hurt the most vulnerable people. During the famine of 1985 eastern Sudan produced 800,000 tons of grain. But huge debt commitments prevented the cash-strapped Government from buying the surplus for those starving in other regions. Discipline of any type is usually applied first to the powerless who lack the political influence to defend themselves.

"The way these people fight among themselves
makes them their own worst enemies"

Reality: The gunfighters on the streets, who often start out as well-trained soldiers, have been made many times more deadly by the sophisticated weapons that have flooded into the Horn from the West and the former USSR. Arms sales, military aid and support for military dictators have contributed to a culture of violence far more deadly than any traditional rivalry. Under Mengistu, Ethiopia received billions of dollars worth of arms from the USSR. Meanwhile throughout the 1 980s the US sent half a billion dollars worth of arms to Somalia which are now being used to terrorize the population of Mogadishu.

"They're starving because they produce nothing
the rest of the world wants to buy"

Reality: Famine-stricken countries often export food while their own people are starving. During the famine of 1984-85 which killed a million people, Ethiopia exported green beans to the UK. Despite the continued threat of famine in 1989 Sudan sold 400,000 tons of sorghum to the European Community for animal feed. The rulers of such countries put a higher priority on oiling the state machinery with foreign exchange than on feeding the hungry. Much of the best land in Ethiopia is devoted to growing coffee (80 per cent of exports) and in Sudan to growing cotton (50 per cent of exports).

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