‘The Destiny of Man is Man’: How Yet Another Famine Threatens the Lives of Millions in East Africa

In this very moment, twelve million human beings in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan are starving. The UN has announced that around 100,000 of them are on the edge of dying from hunger. This dramatic situation raises some hard, yet obvious questions: why does it take the declaration of ‘famine,’ a flood of charity appeals and questionable media images of children reduced to skeletons to push the international community towards a reaction to this crisis that has been unfolding for many years already? Why is this occurring at all, despite sufficient food available in the world? And, most importantly: what can be done about it?

The food supplies in the market areas of East Africa are diminishing, as on the Mercato in Addis Ababa, Africa’s biggest market. Image courtesy of Daniel Wegner © 2017, some rights reserved.
Food supplies in the market areas of East Africa are diminishing, as on the Mercato in Addis Ababa, Africa’s biggest market. Image courtesy of Daniel Wegner © 2017.

Hunger is man-made

The inconvenient truth is that this tragic situation is man-made and consequently largely preventable. In particular, the convergence of four mutually reinforcing factors explains the current hunger crisis in Africa. The first main cause is protracted armed conflict. South Sudan and Somalia are especially characterised by asymmetric warring parties, widespread lack of respect for the most basic human rights and rules of international humanitarian law, as well as a scarcity of viable political solutions to the conflicts. In addition, both armed contentions have regional repercussions, with severe impacts on Kenya and Ethiopia. The civil war in South Sudan has resulted in an almost complete economic collapse, with an immense loss of agriculture and livestock. This, of course, leads to rising food prices, massive inflation and – eventually – to famine.

The second main reason is climate change. East Africa was particularly affected by the climate phenomenon El Niño, which brought long droughts and extremely hot temperatures to the region. Strangely enough, the severe weather conditions led members of the Masai tribe in Kenya to graze their herds on the grass verge beside the main roads in Nairobi.

The third reason is closely related to the previous one: the neglect of subsistence farmers by international development efforts and national governments. Political concepts for nomadic people are rare, and international donors tend to focus their activities on densely populated urban areas, rather than acknowledging that small farms are the heart of food production in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, the ruling elite in Eastern African capitals prefers to advance the development of their capital cities instead of fostering economic progress in the countryside. Consequently, the rising amount of skyscrapers in Nairobi or Addis stands in stark contrast to the insufficient infrastructure in the rest of the country, which exacerbates grievances amongst the rural population. In Ethiopia, for instance, the government’s plan to boost the economic influence of the capital at the cost of surrounding areas populated by the Omoro tribe has triggered an unprecedented wave of resistance in the country, which led to the deliberate killing of more than 600 protesters by security forces and the declaration of the state of emergency.

The last reason for the current hunger crisis in East Africa is political cynicism. Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, underlined that his government would only subsidise food prices if the UN eventually declared famine. This would pressure government-opposing warlords to pull back from areas under their control and grant international aid organisations access. In Kenya, the hunger threat entered the political agenda only recently. Kenya’s president is in the midst of an election campaign, which certainly influences the extent to which his government acknowledges a famine crisis in its own country.

Enhanced funding and preventive measures as viable solutions?

Answers to the crisis are as obvious as they are challenging. In the absence of internal political solutions, the international community bears responsibility to aid those who need it most. This means ensuring better funding and an improved coordination of humanitarian assistance with long-term development aid. The current modus operandi of the humanitarian system, however, is described by Oxfam’s policy adviser, Debbie Hillier, as medieval,’ since the reliance on individual appeal after appeal only offers short-sighted and partial answers to the most severe of today’s crises. Hence, there is a considerable gap between the need of long-term oriented humanitarian assistance, which could prevent future emergencies, and the way the aid business is conducted at the moment. If this contradiction is not addressed as soon as possible, the next hunger crisis is just around the corner.

Too little, too late

While these political debates are ongoing, around 110 people have died from hunger over the past few days in southwestern Somalia, and more will certainly follow. This does not only highlight the incapability of Eastern African leaders to take care of their people, but also the failure of the international community to take the necessary measures to prevent people from starving to death in a world that produces food in abundance. More than 80 years after writing these words, Bertholt Brecht is still proven right in his perception: the Destiny of Man is Man.’

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