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Famine in Our Time

August 4, 2011

In the 1990s, Nobel-prizewinning economist Amartya Sen famously argued that famines don’t occur in democracies. “Famine is entirely avoidable if the government has the incentive to act in time,” he wrote. “If leaders must seek reelection and the press is free to report starvation and to criticize policies, then the rulers have an incentive to take preemptive action.” And what happens when they lack this incentive? The on-going famine in Somalia offers a horrifying answer.

Source: Tyler Hicks/New York Times

The UN definition of famine is very specific. It requires three conditions:

  • malnutrition rates among children exceed 30%;
  • more than two people per 10,000 die per day;
  • and people are unable to access food and other basic necessities.

Certain regions of Somalia have met and even exceeded all of those standards. After months of drought, malnutrition has climbed to 50% and deaths among children alone, in some areas, are greater than six per 10,000 per day.

Up to 2.9 million people in Somalia, about one-third of the population, are threatened by the crisis. Tens of thousands are already dead, and 500,000 children are in serious danger. Refugees have rushed into the neighboring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia, but governments there have been hesitant to accept them due to logistical and security concerns.

The situation in Somalia is gruesome. In this day and age, it is almost unthinkable that brutal power of nature can still wreak such havoc. But the truth is, nature is not to blame.

Yes, the drought in the Horn of Africa may well be the worst in six decades. But droughts, even those of this magnitude, happen all the time. Famines don’t. China’s drought in February was labeled the worst in a century. But there was no famine. Failed rains last year in Niger, hardly a stable state, left 7.1 million hungry. Though the term “famine” was thrown around in the press, the UN did not formally declare it as such. Even now, Kenya and Ethiopia, are experiencing the same severe drought as Somalia—-without the corresponding famine.

The cause of the crisis in Somalia is not only natural disaster but also human failure. As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton explained in a statement, “in Somalia, twenty years without a central government and the relentless terrorism by al-Shabaab against its own people has turned an already severe situation into a dire one that is only expected to get worse.” The lack of a central authority (much less a democratic one) has removed any ability of the government to act on behalf of its own people. Meanwhile, the rise of autocratic regimes has removed any incentive.

Al-Shabaab is the most powerful political entity in much of southern Somalia, including the two regions currently designated famine zones. Designated a terrorist group by the United States, al-Shabaab is a militant Islamist organization, and its response to the famine has been deplorable.

After repeatedly rebuffing Western aid (and even murdering aid workers), it has only recently begun to accept humanitarian assistance. At the same time, it maintains a ban on the UN’s World Food Programme, which it expelled along with several other Christian organizations last year for being spies or otherwise “mixing politics and aid.” On August 1st, the New York Times reported that al-Shabaab had gone so far as to imprison Somalis who attempted to escape the region. What’s more, it even refuses to recognize that a famine is occurring.

Ruling through military might, al-Shabaab answers to no one: no organization demanding change, no press exposing neglect, and no vote revealing the people’s rage. For al-Shabaab, the consent of the governed is irrelevant. The people do not matter.

And so, they can be left to starve.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2011 1:57 am

    Finally, someone gets it right. Great post.

    John Connelly
    Country Director, Ethiopia
    Food for the Hungry

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