Food Aid and Famine Finger Pointing

Now that the United Nations has finally used the ‘F’ word to describe the food security situation in parts of Somalia, the typical chorus of Op/Ed pieces decrying international failures have emerged. German officials have blamed land grabbing by foreign companies and China in particular. Daniel Howden of the Independent argues that the famine is a product of poor policies toward Somalia and a general failure to establish a functioning state there. Veteran journalist, Richard Dowden agrees saying,

Famine is caused by politics – when war or governments prevent people moving or trading. And politics in this region are deadly and remain deadlocked. If we want to stop seeing starving Somali babies on our TV screens our governments will have to engage with al-Shabaab. America refuses to do that because it means abandoning the present Somali ‘government’. This is a powerless collection of individuals who live mostly in Nairobi, control less than a square mile of Somali territory, and has achieved nothing.

Perhaps the most comprehensive finger-pointing comes from the BBC’s Andrew Harding, who published his ‘Top 10 Culprits’ article on 26 July. His list includes:

  1. The United States
  2. The United Nations World Food Programme
  3. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government
  4. Al-Shabab
  5. The ‘F-word’
  6. The media
  7. Kenya
  8. Everyone else
  9. Climate change
  10. Population growth

The only person missing from his list is God, Himself. Honestly, I’m not sure how this sort of blame making can be constructive for the present situation or helpful in ensuring a more food secure future.

Solutions, anyone?

There have been a few articles that focus on genuine reforms to assist in the present crisis and with preventing future famine. Guas and Streets of Foreign Policy argue there needs to be a genuine overhaul of the food aid system that includes better delivery and long-term prevention. They contest that there should be a shift from the archaic “dump whatever excess grains we have on hand” system from the 1960s to a targeted food aid approach that delivers advanced food stuffs designed to provide the necessary calories and micronutrients for an individual who is starving.

While Guase and Streets make some excellent suggestions for fixing the quality of the food delivered – they miss one essential point. We have a Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) which is generally ignored until the pictures hit the press. In addition to reforms in what kind of food we deliver, we also need to start listening to the warnings and start reacting more quickly. We shouldn’t let the situation escalate to the level of famine before we decide to start doing something.

William Mosley also argues for coupling food aid with long-term, localized solutions to food security. He asserts that colonialism and the development banks that followed have encouraged cash cropping, which has destroyed the region’s ability to produce and store surplus grains during good years that would ward against famine in bad years. He argues that there need to be reforms in development aid policies that address the agriculture needs based on tried and true local techniques.

But Mosley is critical of USAID’s efforts to expand a “New Green Revolution” to Africa through improved seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation. His assertion that Africans should return to agriculture systems of the past is quite ludicrous in a world that is increasingly integrated and where climate change has greatly affected both what and how farmers grow. While localized solutions are necessary, so is advancement. Without technological improvements and agriculture R&D in Africa, the region will never become food secure. However, with these advancements, the region holds more agriculture promise than any other place on earth.

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