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Famine: Deadly Confluence of Economics, Politics and Nature

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 ground.

"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 year."

"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 difficult state."

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 black farmers.

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 breast-feeding age."

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 crisis."

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.