The rising price of foods,
combined with drought and conflict in some areas of the world have led to
increased hunger. The World Food Program estimates that in the Horn of Africa
alone 17 million people need food assistance, with millions more suffering from
acute malnutrition. Relief specialists are working to be sure
malnutrition and mortality do not reach the levels of famine. From Washington, reporter William
Eagle looks at some of the causes of past famines.
Food experts note that
famines, or widespread death due to starvation, are becoming less frequent. In
Africa, drought in Ethiopia and in Sudan’s Darfur region contributed to two of
the largest famines of the 1980’s. The two countries are among the nations in
the Horn of Africa that show pockets of acute malnutrition today.
Dan Maxwell is the research
director for Food Security and Livelihoods in Complex Emergencies at of the
Feinstein Center at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
He’s concerned that parts of
Somalia could tip towards famine because of piracy and a lack of security on
"The World Food Program is having a
hard time finding shippers to take food to the ports in Somalia," says Maxwell. "Over the
course of the year, you could see some parts of Somalia deteriorate into famine
conditions. If there are people who are displaced where we cannot reach them,
it is not out of the question you could see [famine] conditions developing this
"Somalia has had
long-standing internal [clan] conflicts," he continues, "that are now regionalized and
globalized with elements of the war on terrorism, and has a proxy battlefield
between Ethiopia and Eritrea…. [In addition] there are bad weather and
environmental considerations and so a fairly significant production shock; on
top of that, the cost of basic foodstuffs has [doubled] in the past 12 months,
so the combination of those three things puts a country like Somalia in a very
Experts say dire conditions like
these are not unusual in countries like Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe, where the
governments or militia hinder the work of relief agencies.
Misguided government policies can
also contribute to food shortages and famine. That was the case in China in the
early 1960’s during unsuccessful efforts to collectivize agriculture. In
Zimbabwe today, food production has dropped due to a drought combined with land
reform policies that redistributed white-owned commercial farms to untrained
In these conditions, farmers sell
their livestock and other assets in an effort to purchase food. Family
members often migrate in search of work in neighboring areas. Civil war and
insecurity in such places as Somalia, Sudan, and parts of the Democratic
Republic of the Congo can contribute to severe hunger or famine by preventing
families from moving in search of food.
Food experts say it was not the
lack of food, but the squalor of camps, that led to the mass deaths of tens of
thousands of children in Sudan about 35 years ago.
Steve Wiggins is a research fellow
in the Protected Livelihoods and Agricultural Growth program of the Overseas
Development Institute in London.
"People left their homes for work in
the small towns of Darfur," he explains, "but when they showed up they found themselves living
cheek by jowl with people in crowded camps with poor water supplies and not
much sanitation. The kids were hit by diseases [like] malaria and diarrhea that
created high mortality levels among kids under age of five and outside the
Some in the media ask whether
rising global food prices or the international banking crisis could exacerbate
shortages in Africa and make drought-prone areas vulnerable to famine. Wiggins
says he does not think so.
"In Malawi," he says, "where transport costs are insulated from the world market, food costs zig zag
about from season to season and year to year, more than international food
prices. A lot of Africans are used to seeing highly fluctuating food prices by
season and from year to year, [which are in fact] higher than the food price
spike this year. Many of the people at risk in Africa are so far inland that
they are far removed from the world market. What matters is what’s happening
with local and regional harvests, not what’s happening on the world market.
That is why I don’t seen prices provoking outright famine."
Wiggins says national governments
are best placed to detect and intervene early to prevent severe hunger. He says
geographical location is also a factor in helping prevent crises.
He says "If does help if you are surrounded
by more prosperous countries. The current situation in Zimbabwe would be more
miserable if it did not have two more prosperous neighbors in South Africa and
Botswana, where a lot of Zimbabweans have gone to find work in the current
The Horn of Africa, he says, has
no such luck, with many countries surrounded by neighbors with poor economies
and conflict. Wiggins says over time, countries once prone to famine,
like Bangladesh, are doing better, thanks in part to improved economies and
national safety nets.
Today, relief agencies say they’re working to
keep hunger in check in places like the Horn of Africa, despite current world
financial problems. Aid workers say they’ve led to a reduction in corporate
funding this year to many relief agencies and might mean a decline in
remittances sent home by relatives in the developed world.