A Predictable Famine

Monday, August 15, 2011

Originally published by The Mark

by Frederic Mousseau


The current food crisis in the Horn of Africa is a result of the problematic development model promoted by the World Bank.



Once again, the lives of millions of East Africans are threatened by famine. According to the United Nations, at the end of July 2011, some 12 million people across five countries in the Horn of Africa were in need of emergency assistance. While relief organizations and UN agencies are urging donors to provide the funding necessary to deliver much-needed humanitarian assistance, some observers are asking whether this food crisis was, in fact, predictable. This food crisis was not just predictable; it was the direct result of certain misguided development policies that have ravaged indigenous, agropastoralist populations throughout East Africa.

Looking back over the last decade, we can identify certain factors that contributed to previous crises but have so far gone unaddressed. This region experienced severe food crises that required massive international interventions in 2002, 2006, and 2008. Each time, the bulk of the people in need were small-farm farmers and, above all, agropastoralists and pastoralists living in the dry lands of the Horn.

That said, the situation in Somalia is admittedly a separate case from those that I’m discussing in this piece. There, the population is paying a high cost from the war that has been raging since the U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopian forces in 2006. The war there has had a dramatic impact on the economy and trade, and has made it difficult for aid and humanitarian agencies to reach those in need.

Why politics must not take precedence over feeding the hungry. Read more here.

With Somalia as a notable exception, then, a number of commentators and experts have linked the current situation in East Africa to la Niña and el Niño. But this crisis was not predictable as a result of some meteorological cycle that brings drought to East Africa every three or four years. Rather, it was possible to predict because pastoralist and indigenous populations have been continuously marginalized by agricultural policies and investments.

Over the past three decades, a considerable amount of knowledge and experience has been gathered concerning both the factors that lead to food insecurity in the region and the various solutions available to alleviate hunger. These solutions are known, but not implemented. As Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, recently said, “It is a colossal outrage that the warnings went unheeded, that the lessons of previous famines have been ignored.”

Many experts consider nomadic pastoralism to be an economically viable, effective, and sustainable way of managing land and natural resources in arid and semi-arid environments. Still, elites in power in Kenya and Ethiopia see indigenous populations and pastoralists as backward and unproductive, and, as a result, have done very little in the way of establishing policies and making investments to support the livelihoods of these populations.

Much can be done to reduce vulnerability to droughts and hunger among pastoralist populations. For instance, governments can provide effective veterinary services (that not only keep livestock in good health, but also allow their exportation). They can also facilitate the mobility of pastoralists, especially across borders, or ensure the management and maintenance of natural resources such as pastures and water points.


Shockingly, governments have actually been doing just the opposite: They are encouraging the sedentarization of nomads, taking water and grazing land away from local populations to give them to investors and corporations. This has been happening in different parts of the region, particularly in Kenya and Ethiopia. Such governments seem to be targeting, in particular, the land used by indigenous communities and pastoralists, where the absence of formal land titles and the use of grazing land and forests makes it easier to label land as “unused” and “available.” According toresearch published by the Oakland Institute in June 2011, 3.6 million hectares of land have been given away to investors since 2008 in Ethiopia alone.

For those who might be disturbed by these facts and figures, it should be noted that the development model underlying this policy in Ethiopia is a textbook case of the paradigm that the World Bank has been promoting in Africa. The model is based on two main pillars. The first one aims to attract foreign investment and “modernize” agricultural practices (i.e. by developing large-scale industrial farming that will replace subsistence agriculture and agropastoralism). In theory, it is hoped that such investments will trigger economic growth and create employment opportunities. In practice, though, it is unclear who will actually benefit from such growth. Furthermore, it appears unlikely that the low-paid plantation jobs created by such investments will compensate for the losses of the millions of people whose livelihoods are destroyed as a result of this policy (especially since, by nature, capital intensive, mechanized farming employs fewer people than labour-intensive small farms).

Canada is donating $50 million in aid to East Africa. Read all about it here.

The failure of this first pillar provides some rationale for the existence of the second pillar of the World Bank’s involvement: support of the so-called Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). The PSNP has been in place in Ethiopia since 2005. The programme delivers cash or food transfers to eight million chronically food-insecure people (about 10 per cent of the population). Though it was initially designed as an alternative to international relief operations, the programme has had to be complemented every year since 2008 with international food aid to feed some five million additional people.

Perhaps a program like this would not have been needed in the first place if the World Bank had supported policies and investments in favour of the small-farm farmers and pastoralists instead of only pushing for the kinds of reforms encompassed in attracting foreign investment and “modernizing” agricultural practices.

Like in Ethiopia, the daily survival of a growing number of people in the Horn of Africa is now reliant on safety nets and food aid, both funded – at high costs – by international donors. This number will continue to increase until governments in the region decisively redirect their policies in favour of those who have been impoverished and marginalized for too many years. Sadly, the policies adopted in the region in recent years seem to indicate that East African leaders have already decided to do just the opposite.