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Development Economist Sees No Excuse for Famines


Drought and the rising cost of food are among the factors behind expanding hunger around the world. The NGO ActionAid says this year, more than 750 million people are newly at risk for chronic hunger. The World Food Program estimates that in the Horn of Africa alone, 17 million need food aid. Some in the world press warn of looming famines. As William Eagle tells us, a leading food security expert blames such humanitarian catastrophes on the failure of political leadership.

Famines should be a thing of the past, says Stephen Devereux, a development economist at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.

"It’s not acceptable that famines continue in the modern world," says Devereux. "We’ve had the capacity to prevent famine for about 20 or 30 years. We have a very sophisticated international humanitarian relief system that can deliver food aid almost anywhere with a months notice anywhere in the world . So if you have a warning, you should be able to respond."

He says famine can only be blamed on one thing – the lack of political will by national governments or the international community.

In Ethiopia, rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Front accuse the government of not allowing food to reach villagers under its control, of using food as a political weapon. Meanwhile, the Swiss branch of Doctors Without Borders pulled out of the southern region of Ethiopia because of what it called intimidation and administrative hurdles. The government has denied both charges, attributing food delivery problems to instability.

Devereux cites hunger in Zimbabwe as an example of political neglect. Food production there has dropped due to drought and to land reform policies that put untrained black farmers on what had once been productive land owned by white commercial farmers. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says by 2009, nearly 45 percent of the country – or about five million people -- will need food aid.

Devereux says neither national governments nor donors can agree on who has the primary responsibility for responding to a humanitarian catastrophe.

"National governments are often weak and lack the ability to intervene and the international donors are powerful but with no mandate. So if Zimbabwe or Sudan says you cannot go into this area with emergency relief, the international community cannot do anything. On the other hand, the national government may not have an interest in preventing famine. So there is an issue of who’s accountable and how you enforce accountability for famine prevention on national and international level."

Devereux says what’s needed is a consensus on who has the mandate to intervene in a hunger crisis, especially if a national government is hostile to intervention.

The developmental economist sees some signs of progress on the horizon. He says new technologies are likely to move initial responses to emergencies to the local and individual level.

"If you have a mobile phone and access to e-mail, you can send anyone a message
anywhere in the world and within minutes the world will know there is a crisis in southern Sudan, Somalia, whatever," he says. "Increasingly, even very poor people have access to the new technologies. In the coming years, [there] may be more people-led information and early warning systems than institutionally led ones (for example, those that rely on rainfall data and satellite images, etc.)."

Devereux also says governments can do more to protect their citizens from hunger. He says some African countries, including Lesotho and Swaziland, have state pensions for people over 65. And he says Africa can look to India for another solution – a government-supported work program for those threatened by famine. It’s called the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, and it allows any household to request from the government up to 100 days of employment during times of food shortages.

"You get a card," he explains, "and once you start doing the work, they tick off the days until you’ve done 100. And if you need work in a famine year then you can get that work or, if not, the local administration must provide you with the equivalent income. So, it’s demand-driven in that people only access that employment when they need it. In Africa, there’s no guarantee of that kind. You get food-for-work projects, but only at the discretion of donors, NGOs and the government."

He says democracies like India are less likely to have famines than other types of government. He says that’s due to an alert media and popular pressure on politicians.

Some note, however, that democratic governments in Africa, including Malawi, have had severe food shortages in recent years.

Devereux blames it on a lack of true democracy.

"Why did Malawi have a famine in 2002 after it had become a democratic country ? The question there is what kind of democracies do we have?" he asks. " Often, they have weak institutions, a constrained media, and opposition that is tolerated, but not encouraged. So, youhave to look at democracy, which is a continuum."

"Zimbabwe," he continues, "is a classic example of a sham democracy. You have had the illusion of democracy for 28 years, but when the regime faces a serious challenge, you see how false that democracy is: It clamps down on the opposition, and stops agencies from coming in and dealing with hunger and famine. You need to have deep institutions and oppositions that can hold governments to account, not like you have in Zimbabwe now.

"If you compare India and North Korea, India has a democratic government, and in 1947 it said it would not allow the Great Bengal famine of 1943 [killing three million people] to happen again. There has not been famine at that scale since then…. They have guaranteed employment schemes and subsidized food which form an anti-famine safety net.

"In North Korea, the government is not interested in preventing famine and prevented food from coming in during a crisis in the 1990’s. A massive famine happened, and the government did not seem to care. [The leaders] were not accountable. Nothing happened to them, and food in security exists to this day."]

Lastly, Devereux calls for more investment and research in agriculture and in improved extension systems. Governments and donors, he says, should also encourage alternatives to farming. While working the land is a centuries-old tradition in Africa and other continents, he notes there are not enough land or water resources to sustain everyone.


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