There is a famine in the Horn of Africa.  I know there is a lot else in the news at the moment – the awful events in Norway,  the US debt crisis, the British hacking scandal – but we need to keep this at the front of our minds.  The situation is very bad. If you can afford it, you can give money in British pounds here or in US dollars here.

It is at times like this that we get a lot of half-baked commentary about famine. We are told that the problem is drought, or over-population, or global warming. Special interest groups call for more money to be spent on agriculture. Commentators complain that we’ve given aid for decades and nothing gets any better.

So here are two things to keep in mind.

First, famine is not caused by drought or overpopulation or insufficient food production. As Amartya Sen explained in Poverty and Famines, people go hungry when they cannot access food, because they are too poor or because markets and governments fail.  Drought is neither necessary nor sufficient for famine.

Ed Carr says that this insight holds in the current crisis:

The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA [Horn of Africa] situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).  For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Map of the Horn of Africa by the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET)

If you are interested in learning more, read Ed Carr’s book Delivering Development, and his blog. My colleague Charles Kenny makes a similar point in Foreign Policy.

Second, development aid works. Though there is considerable suffering, famine has been avoided in Ethiopia this time so far, and that is because of the safety net programme and disaster management system which has been set up by the Ethiopian government, with help from foreign aid. Remember 1984, and people leaving their land to make their way to feeding centres in Ethiopia?  Not happening this time. Why not?  Here’s what the BBC says:

BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut says many people at the heart of the current disaster – in Ethiopia – have emerged relatively unscathed.  This is because the government in Addis Ababa has such an extensive safety net in place, he says.  Pre-positioned supplies mean the Ethiopian authorities could respond rapidly once the extent of the drought became clear.  The first food distributions began in February and have continued to the worst effected communities across a vast area. Communities are suffering, but the famine that has hit neighbouring Somalia has so far been avoided in Ethiopia and overall the disaster management system, built up since the 1980s, has worked.

Martin Plaut is no starry-eyed apologist for the aid system or the Ethiopian government.  But like me, he was in Ethiopia in 1984 so he knows what famine looks like; and he can see the difference in Ethiopia this time. As he points out, the investments that have been made over the past two decades have transformed Ethiopia’s ability to deal with bad rains. Ethiopia has suffered drought and famine about every ten years.  But now a determined government, backed by foreign aid, has put in place systems which have made Ethiopia more resilient and prevented a repetition this time of past tragedies.  If you are one of the Ethiopians who has put this in place, one of the hard-pressed development workers who has patiently assisted, or if you have contributed to aid, through taxes or donations, you should pat yourself on the back: bad as things are in the Horn of Africa today, the crisis would have been a lot worse without you.

Please spare a thought, and a few quid (or a few dollars) if you can afford it, for the 11 million people affected by hunger in East Africa today; and for the many aid agency staff working round the clock, often in difficult and dangerous conditions, to try to help them.

Update: Duck of Minerva thinks that Ed Carr and I are understating the role of physical factors.  Brian Kahn, on the other hand, agrees that ” The current famine in the Horn of Africa isn’t caused by drought. Rather, a complex mix of societal and political factors created a dangerous situation“.

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26 Responses to Famine and drought

  • Thanks for the clarity Owen, as you suggest, a lot of what is written and spoken is half baked, not helped by 24/7 news which seems to put quantity above quality.
    This is in part because we get fed the latest news rather than the most important, so Amy Winehouse comes above US debt crisis and African famine. I don’t see why topic based rolling reports don’t replace minute by minute reporting, so every hour there could be a new update on issue, but you can choose which news you want to know about.
    As it stands, yet another report from Dadaab seems to be more important than more in depth coverage of what is happening and why. I think it was Channel 4 in UK that did quite a good insightful report following one family as they trekked from Somalia to Dadaab. I always have many more questions/ thoughts/ideas than are ever covered by such up to the minute reporting, such as, with youth unemployment very high now in Europe, I want to know if more able bodies on the ground would help – well, actually I keep thinking I would like to help but being 62 I assume I am too old! ;-)
    Maybe Aid Agencies could start a ‘University of Experience’ a 3 year GAP year, but how to fund it? Is money an issue?
    Anyway, thanks once again, great post.

  • Thank you Owen. Crop failure and food shortage may be ecological but famine is political. What Martin says about Ethiopia may be true of the highlands but can anyone tell us what is happening in the Ogaden? It is as closed to scrutiny as Somalia itself is. It is under military occupation and Ogadeni Somalis are not allowed out and outsiders are not allowed in.

  • Contrary to what obtained in Ethiopia, the Kenyan government failed woefully to prepare for this event, which affects an area that includes huge areas in north eastern Kenya and of which the Kenyan government had received several warnings since 2009.

  • To what extent are development efforts funded by donations during crises like this? And to what extent are the development and relief efforts constrained by finances?
    I’m willing to throw in a few dollars even just as a signal of solidarity, but I’m curious if aid organizations working on food security in East Africa are held back by a lack of funds, or if they would need better market access and government cooperation before scaling up operations would be an option.

  • If anyone has suggestions on transparent and accountable agencies who are active in this crisis to donate Euros to, could you please reply here? Thanks!

  • Hi Savina,

    You can give either to NGOs directly (off the top of my head, organisations doing quality work include Islamic Relief, Relief International, ACF, etc.) or through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) or the Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) and/or Humanitarian Response Fund (HRF) which then distribute funds to organisations implementing programming.

    More details can be found here: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Guide%20to%20Giving%20-%20Horn%20of%20Africa%20Crisis%2029July11.pdf

    Hope this helps!

  • Thanks! Actually I am familiar with the global humanitarian context, and was looking for something a bit more specific. Having personally already donated to DEC, and being in the Eurozone at the moment, I wanted to encourage others to donate and was looking for similar organisations or consortia who are equally accountable and transparent in their use of funds. For better or for worse (but more the former I think) I am finding that people are now wary of “just giving” and want to know that their money will be well spent, the more so in a particularly (and notoriously) complex crisis environment as the HoA.

  • I think that giving to the central funds is usually a good way to go. In theory, they screen and hold accountable the organisations that receive the funds. It takes the legwork out of individuals trying to find the ‘best’ NGO to donate to. What I think happens when a handful of NGOs are identified as being particularly effective or transparent is that they end up receiving more funds than they have the capacity to spend. In contrast, centralized funds are (at least in theory) better at assessing the capacity of organisations, and their quality of work.

  • I understand this and agree with the rationality of the principle. In practice though, I find that people relate better if they know exactly who the money will go towards and are able to check on how it will be spent. There is a widespread (and understandable) lack of trust in the whole concept of centralised organisation, especially when it comes to development and humanitarian intervention, so though centralized funds enable efficiency gains, there is a trade-off between those and direct control of spending on the part of the public which is not irrelevant. Credibility will have to be built up on the longer term, and for the moment we have to manage the trade-off as best we can, I think. That’s why I was trying to do the legwork myself, with the aid of anyone out there who is willing to help. So thanks!

    • @Savina – You make a good point. It is one of the reasons why these organisations should be more transparent: so that we can get the benefits of scale and professionalism of large organisations, without giving up the trust which you rightly identify as important.

  • Point definitely well taken, and is very helpful. Thank you!
    In that case, I would go with Relief International, Oxfam Novib, Islamic Relief, or ACF.
    Best Wishes!

  • PS thanks Owen for hosting!

  • Owen

    Surely the fact that Ethiopia was in the middle of a civil war in the 1980s means that comparing that crisis to the current one is not as easy as you make out?

    David

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