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Mark Malloch-Brown, Reuters: What we’ve learned from 25 years of famine

What we’ve learned from 25 years of famine
by Mark Malloch-Brown, August 26, 2011


PHOTO: An internally displaced woman holds her malnourished child inside a pediatric ward at the Banadir hosptial in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Taxta

Twenty five years ago, in the aftermath of a devastating famine in Ethiopia, remembered for better and worse for Bob Geldof’s Bandaid concerts, I wrote a book called “Famine: A Man-Made Disaster?” The question mark said it all. I ghostwrote the book for a group of African and other leaders who were more tentative than I was in declaring what had happened was largely the fault of African governments. So the great men added a question mark.

Yet while it was more convenient–not least for fundraising and handling a nasty regime in Ethiopia–to blame it on God and the weather, that famine was caused in large part by bad governance. A centralized regime in distant Addis Ababa, interested in its own survival, had little time for the development of far off rural areas where non-Amharic minorities were living. Its military background and Marxist pretensions also meant it had no interest in developing local food markets and viable peasant agriculture.

So the first big change is what has not happened. Most of Ethiopia and for that matter Kenya have escaped the famine not just because they were beyond the strict epicenter of the drought itself but because a long investment in rural food security in Ethiopia and a buoyant market economy in Kenya has enabled both to ride out sharply higher food prices.

It is no coincidence that the famine has taken hold where governance remains weakest in the region: northern Kenya where pastoralists are marginalized and have little voice in the capital, Nairobi; the Ogaden region, a similarly politically marginal area of Ethiopia, is struggling but in Tigre, the centre of the famine 25 years ago, a central government back in Addis led by Tigreans has built robust economic and environmental defenses as it has in much of the country. By contrast next door in Eritrea an unpleasant reclusive leadership may be hiding the extent of its failure to contain the famine.

The best example of why government matters is in Somalia, where there is no central government to speak of and the famine is principally in the area controlled by the ruthless Al-Shabab Islamic militia. By contrast semi-independent, better governed Somaliland and Puntland have weathered the crisis much more effectively. Following the logic that safety from famine follows good leadership and management it may be time for its neighbors and the world to hear Somaliland’scall for international recognition and independence. Its parent is a failed state that might do better broken up.

Whether it is terraced farming in Ethiopia, which conserves dusty highland soils that previously were blown or rained off the hill sides, or the extraordinary success of Bangladesh in recent years of cutting lives lost from tens of thousands to almost zero in the annual monsoons that flood down it’s funnel-shaped center, the examples of successful cheap disaster mitigation and containment are remarkable in poor countries.

Yet as man has found throughout his history, good management can only get you so far in a contest with nature, and today the affected famine region is facing the worst drought in 60 years or more. Man-made defenses might seem not to be able to prevail against the combination of climate change and local environmental degradation that are making populations in this area ever more marginal. Like in Niger in West Africa there seems a risk that this part of East Africa could lapse into an endemic famine situation with almost yearly food crises.

And there are factors beyond local African leadership control — such as climate change — that will continue to bear down disproportionately on a region like this because of the pre-existing vulnerability of its soil and weather. But there are other factors that are within local control such as farming models, particularly sorting out the balance between herders and crop farmers; soil and water management; financing inputs such as fertilizers, seeds and livestock; and the meta, too often unmentioned issue, of population growth.

Recent UN estimates suggest the comfortable assumption that Africa will quickly settle into the same demographic transition to smaller family size that has happened in parts of Asia as people move to cities and wages is off by a century or so, and thus also by many hundreds of millions of people. Even if in Nairobi or Addis Ababa family size does come down faster, in rural areas children as a source of farm labor will remain a good insurance policy in the eyes of parents. The extraordinary success of changing behavior and providing supporting medical services that has been applied to breaking the momentum of the HIV/Aids virus in Africa needs to be applied to providing women with effective family planning services and advice.

Critical to their delivery, as it has been to the HIV success, have been international development agencies. Since the era of Bob Geldof, they have labored against an ugly undercurrent that seems to believe that in a conspiracy with publicity-seeking celebrities NGOs invent famine to serve their own interests. And that these UN and NGO relief workers are much happier feeding the hungry forever rather than encouraging the self-sufficient development that will one day make their ministrations redundant.

Yet if there is one further happier factor amidst the tens of thousands of lives being lost in this tragedy, it is that NGOs and government agencies are mostly working with both a long term view of what needs to be done and with a deep understanding of local conditions. The best of these agencies are not carpetbaggers who fly in on the back of a fundraising appeal back home but agencies who have been engaged for decades in the region and most of whose staff are seasoned locals.

So whereas my first reaction to the tragic news of the famine was “Not Again,” the great news is that it isn’t. Where people are starving, and where they are not, is not just the luck of the weather, it reflects the fact that many leaders in Africa and beyond, although sadly not all, have learned from the last time.

The opinions expressed are his own.

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