Old failures feed new famines


With more than three million of its people now at risk of starvation, Niger has become the third African country to face a famine in the past five years. Ethiopia suffered famine in 2000 and Malawi in 2002. All three cases violate Amartya Sen’s law on democracy and famine: that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a democratic country, no matter how poor.

Sen’s argument – articulated in Development as Freedom – is that democracies give voters the right to throw out a government that fails to protect them against gross violations of basic human rights such as the right to food. Democratic institutions such as regular elections, a campaigning opposition and a free press have been credited as major factors in ending famines in the world’s largest democracy – independent India. Yet Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger are also multi-party electoral democracies.

So what went wrong? Perhaps these very young democracies have yet to be ‘consolidated’. Ethiopia’s democratic transition occurred in 1991, Malawi’s in 1994, and Niger’s return to civilian rule occurred as recently as 1999. The current famine in Niger started when drought and locusts devastated the harvest in late 2004, just before President Tandja won a second term in a free and fair election. The country has lacked the capacity to deal with the food shortage since then.

Or perhaps the problem lies with the global humanitarian industry that has taken on responsibility for protecting food security in the world’s poorest countries. Certainly, the international community appears to have been in denial about these famines, preferring less emotive terms like ‘food crisis’ (the IMF on Malawi in 2002) and ‘very severe, but localized food security crisis’ (USAID on Niger, July 2005).

In addition, contingent aid has aggravated these tragedies. Like Ethiopia and Malawi, Niger is highly dependent on international donors – almost half of its annual budget derives from donor resources. Its Government has done everything asked of it by the international community, from economic liberalization to political reforms. Nonetheless its appeals for emergency assistance in late 2004 were ignored. Instead, the Government was required to impose a 19 per cent tax hike on food staples (flour, milk and sugar) early in 2005 as an IMF conditionality for budget support. Following protest marches in the country’s capital, Niamey, in which demonstrators carried signs reading ‘We’re hungry, help us’, these taxes were revoked. This insensitive intervention resonates uncomfortably with the IMF’s advice to the government of Malawi to sell its Strategic Grain Reserve just before the 2002 famine.

The failure of democratization to prevent famine in Ethiopia, Malawi and now Niger is not an argument against multi-party democracy, but an argument for increased democracy and accountability on the part of international actors as well as national governments. In countries with immature political institutions and weak state capacity, the international community must be held accountable for the policies it advocates – at the very least, responsibility for famine prevention must be shared.

Stephen Devereux
This is an edited extract from an article appearing on the Institute of Development Studies (UK).