Horn of Africa Hunger Crisis: Why the Politics of Applying Bandages Hasn’t Stopped the Bleeding
Author: Patrick Mugo Mugo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 08/01/2011
The concept of hungry people being threatened by starvation, accompanied by appeals for humanitarian help at the national and regional levels, are as old as the modern African states. But to say that this season’s erratic rains have caused the problem is to evade the issue. Neither is it right to blame the food crisis on the fact that sections of the Horn of Africa have vast arid and semi-arid lands, nor is it acceptable to make a blanket condemnation against climate change. Pointing fingers at humanitarian agencies for failing to act on time, or toward the international community for its certain degree of indifference, won’t help either. These are replays of perennial official excuses to create a national and regional calamity where there ought to be none.
And out of these perennial official excuses, an estimated 10-12 million people are now affected by the worst drought in more than half a century, according to the United Nations. More than 166,000 desperate Somalis are estimated to have already fled their country to neighbouring Kenya or Ethiopia. Of those being threatened by starvation, 2 million of them are children. UNICEF says that hunger and disease are claiming the life of a child every 6 minutes in the hardest hit areas of Somalia. It is appalling that in this modern age, a child should die of starvation anywhere in this world.
Merely discussing concepts of peace and conflict transformation to a starving population is a touchy matter. However, it is also an opportune moment to talk about poverty, environmental stress and vulnerability of people, as everyone is now willing to listen. All the comforts that have been key impediments have just been disrupted by television images of malnourished children starving to death. Thanks to technology, after broadcasting inspiring moments about the Arabic uprising, the media has, in equal measure, gone full circle and is now reminding the world that there are others whose survival hangs by a thread.
It is true to say that the Horn of Africa region reeling from drought or famine is located in arid and semi-arid lands. It is also true to argue that the same region is at the epicenter of global warming due to climate change – something that scientific models have been reporting for decades. However, these arguments do not explain why, three decades since Ethiopia’s worst famine in 1984, followed by Somalia’s in 1992, along with Kenya, the Horn of Africa cannot dump its role as a begging bowl of pleading for grains to feed her people. As the United Nations makes a global appeal for relief and food aid, why has its global blueprint of weaning populations off humanitarian assistance failed yet again?
In the coming days and months, the international community will be expected to act without hesitation. There is a direct correlation between the way we analyze a problem and the solutions we pose to that problem (Shikwati, 2005). Why are Horn of Africa states still grappling with limping systems of fighting chronic hunger? Rainfall, a key ingredient of food production across the Horn of Africa, has been declining steadily in the last 10-years – known and easily accessible scientific findings will tell you that. Why, then, has the Horn of Africa refused to learn and adapt?
Somalia’s cry for help: Are those with the ability to do so listening and hearing?
Two decades of protracted conflict, drought and poverty have now combined to produce the necessary conditions for famine in Somalia. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden says that if the world fails to act quickly, the famine in Somalia is likely to spread to all eight regions of Southern Somalia. According to the United Nations,[i] nearly half of the Somalian population – 3.7 million people – are now in crisis, of whom an estimated 2.8 million people are in the South and Central areas under the control of the al-Shabaab militias (terrorist[ii] group fighting to overthrow Somalia’s transitional government, and also in control of ‘a large swath’ of the capital, Mogadishu, where it is said to have imposed its own strict form of Sharia law). The UN says that $1.6bn (£990m) is required for Somalia; roughly $300m is needed in the next two months to provide an adequate response to famine-affected areas. Reports indicate that the world has finally decided to act, by agreeing to airlift relief aid before it’s too late.
Somalis, in their thousands of thousands, have been marching in all directions to places where the world cannot afford to continue looking the other way: refugee camps in Eastern Ethiopia, Northern Kenya[iii] and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. The UN says that 1,300 Somalis are arriving at Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya daily, already the world’s largest camp with 350,000 residents, and this number is projected to rise to 500,000 by the end of the year. The list of misfortunes facing Somalis seems endless: drought, famine, diseases, protracted conflict, and being forgotten by the world.
When it comes to the Somali crisis, everybody would like to point a finger at al-Shabaab. The Al-Shabaab, at this hour of crisis, are actually demonstrating a willingness to compromise;[iv] however, at the same time, they are acting in defiance regarding allowing aid agencies the much needed corridors to deliver relief food. WFP says it withdrew from al-Shabab-controlled areas in 2010 because of threats to the lives of UN staff and the imposition of unacceptable operating conditions, including the imposition of informal taxes and a demand that no female staff work there for the WFP. Ethiopia alleges that al-Shabaab is seeking to exploit the drought situation as a means of regaining trust among the local communities. Both the US and UK describe al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, as a terrorist group. Al-Shabaab, since 2007,[v] has been fighting the UN-backed government and African Union peacekeepers, at a heavy cost to the AU troops from Uganda and Burundi.
But this where the political will of the international community gets tested, and such will is lacking, as recently depicted at the UN Security Council when it came to issues regarding the Libyan people. What everyone is hearing more of from Johnnie Carson, the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs is that the US is assessing if there is “real change” from al-Shabab, or whether the group plans to impose some kind of “taxation” on aid deliveries. In other words, the lives of close to a million Somalis are up for debate as a totally disorganized militia group of 3,000-7,000 members being contained by ill-equipped Burundi troops plays politics with the most militarily powerful nation on Earth. Missing also are statements, or even threats, from Washington, London, Paris, New York or Addis Ababa that al-Shabaab must comply or ‘bear the consequences’.
While the so-called “right of humanitarian intervention” has been one of the most controversial foreign policy issues of the last decade – both when intervention has happened, as in Kosovo and of late in Libya, and when it has failed to happen, as in Rwanda and lately in Syria. The Somali case does raise a moral question as to why a militia group should be granted free reign by the international community to starve an entire population to death. I stand to be corrected when I say that the “Responsibility to Protect” is not as conservative as it is being made to look when it comes to the Somali situation. All indications and reports coming from Somalia reveal a situation of the compelling need for human protection.
When it comes to the al-Shabaab situation, it is not a case of the Somali government’s unwillingness to tackle them, but rather a case of inability. Even the measures by US President Obama[vi] on April 2010 of issuing an executive order naming al-Shabaab a terrorist organisation, implying that no US aid could go to areas under its control, have ended up hurting the innocent and defenseless. For a while now, it has been common knowledge that neither political nor economic coercive measures will crack al-Shabaab, but other stringent measures might need to be employed, with the long term goal of stabilising Somalia taken into consideration at the international level.
By all accounts, the fragility of the Somalia situation is now clear; if anything, the world has in time ignored the ‘early warning’. International community culpability stems from failure to tackle the al-Shabaab menace, which could have been part of the ‘preventive toolbox’. The two steps that form the backbone of “Responsibility to Protect“, ‘early warning’ and ‘preventive toolbox’, have been missed opportunities. The third is lack of ‘political will’. In other words, the international community has convinced itself, if not deceived one another, that the Somalia situation can be forgotten or relegated to the bottom of the list of all other global concerns.
It would be wrong to assume that Somalis are a dependant people by all accounts. Rather, the country’s circumstances beyond its control have conspired against them. The famine that has been declared by the UN in the Lower Shabelle will be felt in the entire country of Somalia because of the amount of food that the Lower Shabelle region produces, which is consumed across Somalia. Prior to the present predicament of 20 years of protracted conflict, the region used to export bananas to Europe in addition to livestock byproducts (cattle and camels) like milk and meat. For the past three years, the region has been under al-Shabaab control, and most of the residents would tell you that the region has been relatively peaceful. In the perspective of the globally ‘forgotten’ locals, al-Shabaab is a bearable evil compared to the previous warlords. However, al-Shabaab’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law and use of corporal punishment have scared away thousands, including farmers, professionals, and business people and aid workers.
Ethiopia Crisis: Misguided Priorities or Leadership?
Ethiopians, by all accounts, have had tragic encounters with drought and famine; maybe even more than any other nation in Africa. Thus, the mere mention of Ethiopia being at crisis level again sends a chilling message across the world, with statements like: not again, not again Ethiopia. According to the United Nations, 4.56 million Ethiopians are in need of relief aid with 329,000 children and mothers being reportedly malnourished.
Being blamed for this unfolding Ethiopian crisis are the two successive poor rainy seasons that have left people struggling to get food after poor harvests. The end result is a world scrambling to respond to a situation that, as some would like to say, has happened ‘without warning’. The UK has pledged[vii] £38m ($61m), which is estimated to be enough to feed 1.3 million for three months in Ethiopia. With the number of hungry Ethiopians standing at 4.56 million, the donors might have to dig deeper into their pockets.
The worst food crisis in African history was the great famine of 1988-1992, which killed one third of Ethiopia’s population and also inflicted suffering in Somalia, Sudan and Tanzania (Shikwati, 2005). Since the worst famine back in 1984, there those who argue that Ethiopia has indeed made great strides towards taming drought and famine. Indeed this is true, as the number of people in need of food aid today is way less than it was back in 1984. What is not in dispute, however, is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are still being ravaged by drought and famine to this day.
The Ethiopian population has doubled since the last time the world was summoned to help fend off starvation in 1984. It is estimated to be at 80 million, and predictions are that by 2050, it will hit 186 million. Despite such excessive population growth, Ethiopia still has a very limited water storage capacity, and instead, has been mainly focusing on supply-side projects (Mason, 2004). One of the projects that Ethiopia says will help her maximize the exploitation of her natural resources and also tame hunger is the construction of a nearly $5 billion dam, called the Great Millennium Dam along the Nile River, about 25 miles from the Sudan border.
Ethiopia has an inherent right to say a word or two regarding the exploitation of the Blue Nile waters. Ethiopia contributes 73ckm of water yearly (Worcester, 2008). Worcester says that out of this contribution, little if any of the water is utilised by Ethiopia despite being a country suffering from severe water stress. Ethiopia has only 1.7% of arable land under irrigation, and only a fraction of the potential hydroelectric potential is utilised. Constant rains in Ethiopia have made it impossible to grow virtually any crops. It is estimated that irrigation schemes would help 30-40% of the population, argues Ethiopia. Moreover, Ethiopia’s economic capacity does not yet allow full implementation of its irrigation plans (Mason, 2004). Ethiopia’s agricultural sector accounts for 52.3% of her GDP, with industries at 11.1% and services at 36.5% (World Development Indicators, 2002).
However, there are those who hold reservations to such plans on the ground, saying that the Ethiopian ‘great’ dam is no different than the relationship of man above nature – conquering nature, and thereby providing a dramatic illustration of the might of the state that built that dam (Bocking, 2009). In other words, they see it as a ‘Pharaonic Temptation’ that employs immense, highly visible public works projects for propaganda purposes. Some Ethiopians believe, more so those conscripted to the national state mentality of perceiving only the available resources of interest to the state, as Hamid (2011) refers to them, that Nile water holds the solution to Ethiopia’s present problems, such as food insecurity and unexploited economic opportunities.
Even the United Nations has voiced reservations[viii] about the dam, calling on Ethiopia to halt its construction until the possible negative impacts are assessed and ascertained, like endangering L. Turkana in Kenya, which offers livelihoods for 500,000 people in Kenya. However, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi disagrees on the grounds that the Ethiopia dam project is more environmentally friendly and socially responsible than other projects in the West – those causing global warming by producing carbon gas emissions.
In contrast, although the potential for greater irrigation development exists, the economic logic behind developing expensive irrigation in Ethiopia has yet to emerge (Nicol, 2003). It is certainly not the answer to most of the country’s food security problems. In Nicol’s view, a critical analytical distinction must be made between ‘food security’ and ‘food self-sufficiency’. Security is attainable without self-sufficiency if the trade-off of perceived ‘national security’ can be achieved. As Rahmato (1999) notes, much of the land used for irrigation would already have been under rainfed cultivation (or pastoral range land), and significant opportunity costs to irrigation expansion are therefore likely. An optimistic scenario suggests that irrigation would, in any case, only contribute about 10% to food needs in the next 20 years. Improving the rainfed sector in the Ethiopian highlands is the key issue, with the problem of land-holding size and the capacity of households and communities to grow buffer stocks to help tide them through poor years of rainfall as central to this improvement.
If anything, the Achilles heels for the Ethiopian dam case are the structural factors, which are key within the fragile nature of the Ethiopian state. The best explanation for this is the inability of the government to have control over parts of her internal territory. Economic management is weak, and major political groups are systematically excluded from political processes. Worcester (2008) says that the Ethiopian case can rightly be referred to the “curse of resources”, an argument gaining support among many critics of Ethiopia’s planned dam, who contend that such mega-dams have, in the past, benefitted the political elites and multinational companies with reliable electricity but not the local populations, who, in the initial stages, were said to be the direct beneficiaries.
Ethiopia’s present leadership cannot escape blame for perceiving threats where they do not exist. The country has the largest and most well equipped military across the Horn of Africa, with government projections as of 2010 stating that military spending would increase by 10%[ix]. The Ethiopian military has more than once been engaged in combat, either in Somalia fighting Islamists or at war with Eritrea. These are self-created or perceived threats that Ethiopia cannot afford to engage in when a substantial segment of her population is being ravaged by drought and famine.
If Ethiopia was to employ a cost-benefit analysis between a national security mentality and a human security mentality, she would realize that her real and present threats are from the human security factors. Borrowing ideas from Huq and Pettengell (2010), this includes chronic threats such as hunger, disease, repression, and sudden and harmful disruptions in the patterns of daily life of her population. Ethiopia, being a state where individual political freedom is highly controlled to the extent of siphoning-off the economic freedom of her population, lacking in this case within the Ethiopian leadership is what Chiwaka (as cited in Svensson, 2007, p.7-8) refers to as Participatory Vulnerability Analysis (PVA): a systematic process that involves communities and other stakeholders in an in-depth examination of their vulnerability, and at the same time empowers or motivates them to take appropriate action.
Kenyan Case: Is Failed Leadership or Nature to Blame?
Kenya should not be a country walking from one Western capital to another with a begging bowl. In the last 48 years that Kenya has existed as an independent state, one of the trickiest issues, apart from simmering ethnic animosity, is her inability to feed herself. This reality comes despite the fact that at least 75% of the Kenyan population engages in agricultural activities. When it comes to food security, it is a contradiction: plentiful food in one part of the country against a high degree of food insecurity in the other parts, thanks to politics of marginalization. A majority of the 2.8 millions Kenyans in dire need of relief food (up from 1.6 million in 2010) hail from the Northeastern region, an impoverished part of the country historically neglected by the government in the capital of Nairobi. Like all the other capital cities of the Horn of Africa now with begging bowl in hand, Nairobi, where budgets are made and cut, is totally disconnected from the realities of the starving Kenyans. The Government spokesman[x] is on record (July 28, 2011) alleging that Nairobi is not aware of any Kenyan who has died of hunger, while aid agencies report otherwise.
The Kenyan government says that it needs Ksh 30 billion[xi] ($330 million) to fend-off raging famine and drought, that Kenya has set aside $110 million for relief operations, and is in need of $220 million to fill the deficit, a shortfall that it is hoped will be met by donor agencies and well wishers. But what evokes anger is when Kenya’s Permanent Finance Secretary Joseph Kinyua says that the money at hand to fend-off the hunger situation was earmarked during the creation of the 2011/2012 budget, yet the same funds could not be available to mitigate the situation. Equally disturbing is Kinyua’s comment that the “rate for absorption for development expenditure is between 50-55 per cent for most ministries.”
Now the blame game going on across the ministries, which ought to have mitigated the drought and famine in the first place, is that some ministries were allocated more money than others. Others, trying to wash themselves clean of the blame, argue that the response to the hunger situation is ‘too late’ and uncoordinated. But the minister in charge of the Northern Kenya Development Ministry, Mohammed Elmi, himself a resident of the region, says it is not the consequence of ill-will. Rather, it results from structural problems in the way both drought and arid land development is addressed in Kenya. Take Eastern Kenya as an example: the chronology of famines in recorded history date back from 1840 to the present, and the area is hit at an average interval of 3 years (Shikwati, 2005). In Kenya, it is the weakness of the institutions and misguided development policies that are at the heart of the matter. The other issue is the political culture, that of drowning in the din of incessant wrangling over political power and not over empowerment of the population. The severity of the Kenyan drought and famine can also be attributed to the ‘traditional’ conflict over control and access to the scarce and dwindling resources in the northern pastoral districts, as well as southern and costal lowlands.
It is common understanding that this is not the first time that Kenyans are been threatened by hunger, and may not be the last time either, unless the political leadership and food policymakers rethink and learn that famine does not have to occur. Moreover, they must accept that it is a disgrace for a country with a potential for food security to be pleading for food aid. However, Kenya’s present problems are deep rooted, and to certain degree, have their foundations in the Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1963/65 on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya. Drafted to guide the development and investment thinking of the newly independent state of Kenya, it argued that the Kenya government would, in the future, invest her resources in the ‘potential’ areas that possess the capacity for high returns at the expense of ‘non-potential’ areas. Flashing forward to 2011, all the areas in Kenya hit hardest by drought and famine were preconceived as ‘non-potential’ areas due to them being arid and semi-arid areas with a high degree of water scarcity.
Ever since 1964, despite the same region’s contribution to Kenya’s national coffers through taxation, either by their livestock sector or human resources, they have been neglected, if not totally forgotten, by state bureaucracy in its planning and resource allocation; in short, they have been severely marginalized. It does not take a genius to look at the map above (Areas of Shortage) to mark out such zones in Kenya. Yet, in the view of Hamid (2011), the scarcity of physical water does not necessarily mean that a country, or a region in this case (Northern Kenya), suffers from water scarcity or, more strictly, suffers from consequences of water scarcity. According to Allan (1999a, p.3), “water availability does not determine economic outcomes.” Allan points out that “communities, and especially national communities, have the potential to combine extremely scarce water and other factors of production in ways that generate sustainable livelihoods” (Allan 1999a, p.3, 1999b, p.5). As this thinking has yet to be bought by those seeking to tame drought and famine in Kenya, certain regions in Kenya will continue, for the certain foreseeable future, to be at the at mercy of humanitarian agencies when the rain falls.
In Kenya, humanitarian operations and disaster mitigation projects are also prime harvesting grounds and golden opportunities for making money off of the misery of others. As Kenya seeks to raise $20 million from donors to fend-off hunger, millions of dollars committed by various donors and lending institutions since 1996 for fighting drought in Northern Kenya are frozen[xii]. The World Bank, a key lender and coordinator of the initiative bringing together several donors, pulled the plug in August 2010 over corruption following a forensic audit. At risk is the Ksh 600 million ($6 million) European Union grant committed for a drought resistance contingency fund. This reality exists at a time when the world has been thinking that the ever recurring drought and resource conflict was being tackled in Kenya.
Humanitarian Relief: Is it a Solution or the Problem?
Humanitarian agencies now engaged in averting the likely possibilities of millions of people from the Horn of Africa starving to death argue that if they pack their bags at this moment in time, people will die. That is true, indeed, and no one can dispute that. What they are not telling the world is why, despite some of them being in the region as long as one can remember, has a permanent and viable solution not been found to the drought and famine crisis in the Horn of Africa? According to Shikwati (2005), Sub-Saharan Africa is now the second most important world destination of food aid after Asia. In 1970, this region received 750,000 tonnes of cereals as food aid. By 1998, this had increased to 2.2 million tonnes (an annual average rate of increase of 3.8%), representing about one-seventh of the region’s total cereal imports. Further, in 2000, the African continent received 2.8 million tonnes of food aid, which is over a quarter of the world total.
With more than 10 million in the Horn of Africa threatened by the worst drought in 60 years, the UN’s[xiii] first emergency donor meeting, held at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization headquarters in Rome on July 25, squeezed out of the donors $1bln worth of aid pledged. However, the organization maintains that another $1bln is needed to tame the problem. Leading the list of donors is the World Bank with a pledge of $500 million. According to Aly Khan Satchu[xiv], a financial analyst, speaking on Aljazeera’ “Inside Story” program, that there is a great deal of fatigue, especially among the donors, as emergency relief interventions have suffered from all sorts of racketeering and profiteering, making the donors take a step back.
Even as the UN whips international donors, there is a blame game already going on with British charity Oxfam and the UK government pointing fingers[xv] at several Europeans donors for withholding or failing to follow through on their previous commitments to the tune of $800 million. They claim that had these funds been available, they could have helped avert the unfolding crisis. The Group of Eight developed countries cannot escape the blame either, as in 2010 they promised to spend $20bln over three years to help small-scale farmers in Africa and parts of Asia improve productivity as part of a long-term solution to chronic hunger and malnutrition. Yet one year on, there is little talk of what came out of this promise. Let’s hope that it is not this same money being promised once again as emergency relief, as old habits die hard.
There are few instances when donors are to be held as accountable as when the mission at hand is that of tackling a crisis. Oxfam, in a report in 2009, argued for a ‘radical shape-up’ of the aid system to break the Horn of Africa cycle of hunger, referring to such interventions as often a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ to food crisis. Instead, Oxfam called for the adoption of a new approach to humanitarian disaster, which focuses on preparing communities to prevent drought before it strikes, rather than relying mainly on short-term emergency relief, such as imported food (Oxfam, 2009). But Alan Tomlinson, the Emergency Programmes Coordinator at Care International says[xvi] that humanitarian agencies have for some time now being looking at self-sustaining mechanisms, such as community coping systems. Tomlinson says that the key challenge has been the lack of predicable funding from donors. However, Aly Khan Satchu argues that while such interventions are laudable, he refers to them as a gold flood of liquidity that hits an ill-equipped system.
The case in point is Ethiopia[xvii], which has been a major recipient of humanitarian aid since the 1984 famine, with 70% of all aid coming from the United Sates. Oxfam (2009) says that out of the billions of dollars of US humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia since 1991, 94 per cent has been in the form of food aid – almost all of it sourced from within the US rather than purchased locally or regionally. Most US food aid has conditions applied to transport and packaging, which can cost up to $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid. In other words, Ethiopian humanitarian projects can be said to have been a ‘big business’, while at the same time creating dependency across the Ethiopian populations. At present, 13 million Ethiopians out of a total of 70 million depend on foreign food aid. In this case, the humanitarian agencies stand to be blamed for bestowing upon themselves the role of rescuing Horn of African governments when they fail their population so miserably.
If all are willing to listen and hear now, why are hard questions not being asked?
The positive part about this whole crisis afflicting the Horn of Africa is that due to its recurring nature people are now willing to ask hard questions, like why we are at it again and what the permanent solution is. Thus, in the view of Hamid (2011), water scarcity is not a permanent condition associated with population increase. Rather, it is a condition that a nation might not reach, could halt if it does happen, or can even be reversed depending on the nation’s ability to generate abundance in its second-order resource – social resources. In the same manner that an existing order can induce structural scarcity or environmental scarcity, so too can it reverse such scarcity by effecting structurally induced water abundance (2011). One way of optimising available water usage is through alternative technologies for fresh water augmentation and irrigation methods, such as sprinkler and drip irrigation. Surprisingly, only about 4% of arable land in Africa, compared to 40% in South Asia is irrigated. Sadly, in the last decade, the amount of land under irrigation in Africa grew at a rate of between 0.5 to 0.7 % a year (Shikwati, 2005).
Should the African governments continue to fail as they have failed the in past? The relief agencies cannot say they do not have an option. It is high time that relief agencies abandon their preconceived idea that relief operations ought not to be a life time activity. In this regard, they must start perceiving the hungry populations as people with dignity and abilities, who, if empowered, can be self-reliant. If they can survive drought and famine, decade in and decade out, then why can they not be empowered so that they can tame nature and make it work for them?
Patrick Mugo Mugo is a Multimedia Senior Researcher from Kenya and a master’s student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. firstname.lastname@example.org