Simply... The Causes Of Famine In Africa

new internationalist
issue 222 - August 1991

[image, unknown] The causes of famine in Africa

The rains fail and so the food runs out - surely this is what causes
Africans to starve to death, plain and simple. Right? Wrong. Drought
only kills because it lies at the end of a long tunnel of human
neglect which begins deep in the heart of the West.


Nobody starves to death if they have money - journalists and aid workers visiting famine zones do not starve; nor do merchants or government employees in towns nearby. But this is true of countries too - the desert states of the Gulf are more infertile than any African country but nobody starves there because they are awash with cash. The bitter background to every famine in Africa is the poverty of the country suffering it - and the Western societies that are so unprepared to share their opulence.

Developing countries do not have the resources to be able to insure themselves against famine. The goods they sell on the world market fetch ever less on the world market - in 1989 the average world market price of the primary commodities on which poor countries depend was just 70 per cent of what it was in 1980 and just 43 per cent of what it was in 1973.1

Imagine your own salary being less than half what it was two decades ago. Then imagine yourself having to repay with it the interest on a debt you incurred a decade ago. And then consider whether you too might find yourself in a 'food-deficit situation.'

1 International Monetary Fund figures, August 1990.



All of the countries prone to famine at present have suffered internal chaos from civil war - Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Mozambique, Angola and Malawi. And more than 50 per cent of Oxfam UK's overseas aid worldwide, for example, now goes to conflict-related areas.

Conflict makes people more prone to famine because:
. It disrupts their traditional ways of coping with food scarcity, which might range from gathering wild plants to migrating in search of work.

. It destroys market centres and transport links, which are prime military targets.

. It stops people cultivating their land - for years, any field work in Eritrea and Tigray has had to take place at night, while in Angola the UNITA rebels have indiscriminately scattered land mines across the countryside.

. It turns ordinary people into refugees: in Mozambique there are over four million internally displaced people with a further 1.2 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

. It brings about long-term economic decline, as the infrastructure is destroyed and foreign investment collapses.



Public opinion has a big and underestimated part to play in Africa as well as in the West. The number of African countries with a free press can, unfortunately, be counted on the fingers of one hand. We mutter about the real freedom of a Western press owned by billionaire entrepreneurs but we are still forunate compared with the African citizens who have to make do with endless grey propaganda about the achievements of the government or the movements of The Leader. The climate of public opinion in India is one reason why mass famine is a thing of the past there - Indian political leaders would never get away with having allowed a famine to happen.

African countries have less resources than India to play with - and a less developed middle class. But if the behaviour of President Mengistu of Ethiopia had been monitored by a free press, would he have been able to spend more than half the annual budget on the military?



Africa's soil is in general made up at sand and laterite, which erodes more easily and holds less water than the clayey and humus-rich soils of temperate regions. It has a high iron and aluminium content which makes it turn hard on exposure to sun and air - and when devegetated it bakes into a concrete texture which is impossible to cultivate and absorbs no rain.

But all of these factors are worsened by overfarming, overgrazing and deforestation, which often have political causes. When the best land is taken for export crops, peasant farmers growing toad tar local consumption are forced to work less fertile land too hard. One billion tonnes at topsoil are lost tram the Ethiopian highlands each year. According to UN estimates. While across, the Sahel belt the Sahara desert is said to be moving southwards at a rate at about five kilometres a year.



If the African poor have been tailed in all these other aspects there is still the opportunity to prevent famine at the last moment by having an adequate toad-security system in place when drought comes. This means adequate butter stocks of food, together with a code at action that can be implemented when the danger signs start appearing.

It is almost always crop failure two years running which causes famine on the scale of Ethiopia and Sudan at present, so there is usually enough warning. It is just that the warning signs are habitually and callously ignored, both by local administrators and by Western governments.



Drought is the kiss of death at the end of this sad story. It tips people over the brink into starvation - hut they are only balanced on that brink because at all the neglect that has gone before.

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