New Internationalist

Simply… Food And Famine

Issue 238

new internationalist
issue 238 - December 1992

Simply... food and famine
The gaunt face on the TV screen is enough to open wallets.
But the crisis in the Horn is due to more than just a shortage of food.
The NI traces a history of skewed priorities and distorted development.

Illustration by ALAN HUGHES Traditional wisdom
The Horn of Africa is no newcomer to drought and famine. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-92 claimed one-third of the population in the areas hit by drought. In Somalia the devastating drought of 1926-29 destroyed 80 per cent of sheep and goats. But 'calamities are adaptable' as an old Somali saying goes. Traditional methods of coping minimized risks rather than maximizing returns - they aimed to mitigate disasters or enable a quick recovery. People would grow drought-resistant plants, sell livestock or migrate for short periods. They would store grain surpluses communally to guard against lean years. They would barter goods to avoid price fluctuation and merchant speculation. And co-operation between nomads and farmers - nomads' animals grazed on harvested stubble, leaving fertilizer for the next crop - helped provide a varied diet and sustain the fragile eco-system.

Food last
The gradual integration of the Horn economy into the world market brought poverty as well as wealth to the region. Colonialism in Somalia meant the best land went to Italian farmers who grew export crops such as cotton, sugar cane and castor beans. In Sudan cotton became king when the UK introduced large-scale cultivation and pump irrigation in the 1920s. Wealthy farmers in the fertile plain between the Blue and White Niles grabbed the best agricultural land for cotton and other exports. In Ethiopia food cultivation gave way to coffee and other cash crops for Northern consumers. The Awash River Valley scheme in central Ethiopia was a typical development. In the early 1970s the World Bank financed a series of dams to promote large-scale cotton and sugar-cane cultivation: this displaced local farmers and pastoralists onto marginal or overgrazed land. These vulnerable peasants become hunger's first victims in times of drought.

Guns first
The cost of buying lethal modern weapons and maintaining centralized military states has significantly disrupted food production. Dictatorships depend on export agriculture to earn the foreign exchange they need to buy arms for their troops. In the last two decades military expenditure has accounted for more than half government spending in all the Horn states. Civil war has destroyed crops, killed farmers, driven them from their land or turned them into soldiers. In Sudan, where conquering the fertile south has been a goal for northern-dominated governments in Khartoum, the controversial Jonglei Canal project was devised to channel the vast Sudd swamp (vital for local livestock) to irrigate the dry cotton fields further north.

Bad medicine
The World Bank and the IMF have pressured Horn governments to adopt market-oriented strategies based on agricultural exports. Their main priority is to get the regional economy in good enough shape to meet its debt obligations and compete on the international market. Some of their suggestions are useful: paying farmers decent prices and cutting expensive bureaucracies, for example. But without support for small farmers - credit, inputs and extension services - the price increases will mainly benefit wealthy commercial farms. The whole package of reforms from social-spending cuts through wage freezes to trade liberalization has meant increased misery for the poor majority. In the Sudan, where the IMF has had a lot of influence, the disposable income of the average peasant is about 30 per cent of what it was in 1970.

Food as a weapon
By the mid-1980s recurrent droughts and famines had placed millions of people in north-east Africa at risk of starvation. And the giving and withholding of food had become a political weapon. Some of the food aid that poured into the Horn came from well-meaning donors but much came from governments wanting to dump agricultural surpluses and extend their influence. In Ethiopia many donors refused to give food aid through rebel relief agencies for fear of offending the military government in Addis; this cost thousands of lives. Meanwhile food aid was withheld from troublesome groups like the Dinka in south Sudan and the Tigrayans in northern Ethiopia. The looting of food-aid shipments and their use to feed troops has been a common feature of all the civil wars that have swept the Horn. While food aid undoubtedly saves lives it does little to address the underlying causes of the region's agricultural crisis. And one of its side-effects is to shift the tastes of African consumers away from traditional food crops like cassava and millet toward expensive imported foods.

Illustration by ALAN HUGHES Greenwar
The driving force of agricultural policy has been 'big is best' - whether in the commercial cotton farms of Sudan or the giant state farms of Ethiopia. Expensive farm machinery and chemical inputs quickly eat up precious foreign-exchange eamings. Peasant farmers and pastoralists are crowded onto marginal lands where ecological resources - soil, water, trees - are quickly exhausted from over-use. Conflict between pastoralists and farmers over scarce resources quickly follows. This is one of the causes of the present crisis in Somalia where the six traditional clans share overlapping territories and the decline of resources like water or pastureland leads one clan to intrude on another. In Sudan these conflicts have been exacerbated by a fundamentalist government which has encouraged violence by Muslim pastoralists against non-Muslim farmers.

Signs of hope
If there is hope in the Horn it lies in the many farmers who are opting out of commercial agriculture for export. Sick of unreliable prices and the poor marketing infrastructure, many farmers are abandoning export and market crops entirely and instead growing food for their families. There is hope too in the NGOs and churches who are assisting local efforts in agricultural development, ecological restoration and health and education programs. But only in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia are village and regional assemblies emerging where farmers have a real say in the shape of agriculture. Here local farmers' knowledge of ecology and crop choice is respected. And here extensive reforestation, terracing and water harvesting are being undertaken to rehabilitate a badly degraded environment. This kind of initiative must be sustained and must spread to other parts of the Horn if the future is to be free of famine.

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