Hunger in southern Africa

Can famine be averted?

The Economist

August 1, 2002


If food aid is slow or obstructed, there will be starvation



AFRICA'S hunger is growing, dangerously. However quickly donors respond to the disastrous food shortage in southern Africa, millions more people will need aid over the next nine months.

Stocks from April's awful harvest are nearly exhausted. The World Food Programme (WFP) says that 7m people already need help, and that the numbers will double before Christmas. In the worst-affected countries, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, maize harvests were miserable, but cassava and potatoes partly filled the gap. Now these are almost gone, too. Within months, say aid agencies, chronic hunger could give way to starvation in the most remote areas. If donors are slow or obstructed, a vaster famine looms.


Rural people are vulnerable even in normal times. Malawi's woes are typical: it has a shrinking economy and endemic poverty; half its children are chronically malnourished. An acute land shortage has led to over-use, soil degradation and small yields. Imported fertiliser could make even tiny plots productive, but most small farmers cannot afford to buy it, and donors are sending less of it free. An internal report written in July by Britain's Department for International Development admits that its own severe cut in “free inputs” for Malawi's farmers in 2000 and 2001 was a “more important factor” leading to hunger than two years of bad weather.

The meagre harvests that resulted meant that the vulnerable have become desperate. In Ositeni, a village in central Malawi, a few withered maize stalks and yellowing cassava plants poke up from the dusty soil. The village has no irrigation, no grain silos, and no tomatoes or cash crops to trade for nsima, the country's maize staple. In other years, able adults would find casual work on neighbours' fields, in exchange for food. Now there are no jobs.

Last week, the first sacks of charitable corn were unloaded for Ositeni's 13 most needy families. But stockpiles are needed before November's rains make the bare-earth roads impassably muddy. The WFP has appealed for $507m for southern Africa, but has so far raised less than a quarter of that. Last week, relief groups and the Red Cross launched their own campaigns, and a few million dollars have rolled in. It is already getting late, says Brendan Paddy of Save the Children: “During the region's 1991-92 shortage, food was already stockpiled in forward positions by now. We are three or four months behind.” Aid workers fear that donors will not respond until they see skeletal people on television.


Zimbabwe's way

Even a generous response could be hampered. In Zimbabwe, where 6m people will need help, the government has ordered hundreds of commercial farms to close down by August 10th and is deliberately starving communities suspected of supporting the opposition. In Binga, a western district, 115 tonnes of high-protein porridge, intended to feed local schoolchildren, lies unused and rotting in a warehouse. A band of Mr Mugabe's club-wielding militiamen refuse to allow it to be distributed, because 85% of the people of Binga voted for Mr Mugabe's opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, at the presidential election in March. The police could easily disperse them, but do not. Already, the children of Binga are fainting from hunger in class, and 27 people have died of hunger-related causes in the local hospital.

In other Zimbabwean areas, peasants suspected of dissent are barred from buying maize from the state marketing board. All around the country, the government seizes grain from “hoarders” and sells it cheaply to ruling-party card-holders. The regime barely troubles to hide its malign intentions: a deputy foreign minister recently crowed that “the [ruling] party will start feeding its children before turning to those of the [opposition].” James Morris, head of the WFP, says his agency will leave Zimbabwe “in a second” if its donations of food are manipulated for political ends. But the WFP has failed to prevent such misuse in the past in Sudan, Somalia, Angola and elsewhere.

The leaders of Zambia and Malawi are less obstructive, but their countries are far from ocean ports and have narrow roads and poor train tracks. Malawi's government is also under fire for selling all the grain (more than 160,000 tonnes) in its national store two years ago. In the capital, Lilongwe, diplomats and aid workers say that people close to the ruling party profited from the grain sale. “In another country they would be on trial by now,” says one diplomat.

Last week South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, admitted that the threat of 14m hungry people by the end of the year did not warrant discussion at the inaugural meeting of the African Union, which he chaired in July. But the danger stretches beyond this year. Aid workers worry that another bad harvest is likely in 2003, whatever the weather.

Poor soil, lack of fertiliser and the loss both of livestock and of people threaten production. The weakening effect of hunger means that more people are dying from diseases such as AIDS, which infects roughly a fifth of the people in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. The ravages of AIDS, plus the worsening poverty, mean that recovering from this food shortage will be tougher than it was after previous ones—and that people will be even weaker and more vulnerable when the next spell of deadly hunger arrives.


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Below is another article from The Economist which discusses starvation in Africa.  This article is about Ethiopia and the role that warfare has played in its current food shortage and pending famine.  This article, like the one above, reinforces the point that political factors, not overpopulation, are primarily responsible for famine and malnutrition in Africa.




Famine in Ethiopia

Drought, death and taxes

The Economist

September 5, 2002


Six million Ethiopians are going hungry.

The weather, and a war, are to blame


A GREAT lake stretches across the desert, shimmering enticingly. Unfortunately, it is a mirage. The Afar region of Ethiopia, perhaps the hottest inhabited place on earth, is even drier than usual this year, and the people who live there have run out of food. Their beloved cows lie dead and dying in the hot sand. Many of the carcasses are so fresh that the storks and hyenas have not yet had time to peck or chew them clean.

In much of eastern, southern and northern Ethiopia, the rains have been rotten this year. In all, 5.9m of Ethiopia's 65m people need food aid or other assistance, according to the World Food Programme. The food shortage is not as terrible as the one in southern Africa. Nor is it as disastrous as the famine Ethiopia suffered in the mid-1980s. Ethiopia's current government is not indifferent to human suffering in the way its old Marxist dictatorship was, or Zimbabwe's government now is.

Nonetheless the situation is grim. Among the worst affected are the Afars, a tough, gun-toting people who subsist by herding livestock in the arid vastness of north-eastern Ethiopia. The Afars are almost all poor, but like most pastoralists, they have developed sophisticated methods for avoiding starvation. Their only assets are their animals, but they diversify their portfolios, so to speak, by breeding cows, goats, camels and sheep. Cows are a high-risk, high-yield investment. They breed fast and produce lots of milk, but they are the first beasts to die in a drought. Goats are scrawnier, but hardier. Camels are the toughest of all, but breed slowly. Afars have insurance, too, in their kinship ties. In hard times, those with spare livestock share with those who have not.

Despite all these precautions, Afars are often malnourished. Their nomadic traditions fiercely discourage them from settling down, but many have grown desperate enough to start rearing maize as well as cows and camels. Most years, these “agro-pastoralists” have enough to eat, but this year even they are suffering.

“All our cows died, and the ground is too dry to grow maize,” says Muhammad Oumar, a skinny father of four, squatting in the dust by a treeful of yellow orioles. Hunger has not yet turned to starvation in his village; the villagers hike 20km (12 miles) to Assaita, the nearest town, to sell woven mats or firewood and buy flour. But there is not enough to go around, and malnutrition has made many vulnerable to disease.

Children have no milk, and must make do instead with a thin porridge made from teff, an indigenous grain. The 15 households in Mr Oumar's village look after 20 orphans between them. In another nearby village of 100 homes, 13 people have perished in the past month, according to Muhammad Hassan, a peasant with sunken, cavernous cheeks. “We need food,” he says, “or we're going to die.”

The immediate cause of Ethiopia's food crisis is the weather. But political factors play a role, too. After Ethiopians shook off their Marxist overlords in 1991, food production rose steadily. But between 1998 and 2000, a pointless war with neighbouring Eritrea stymied progress.

Strong young men were summoned from their fields and sent to the front line. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and perhaps 350,000 forced to flee their homes. Families with members on both sides of the border were separated. Flour mills, bridges, power lines and irrigation systems were destroyed. Most aid was frozen. In all, the war cost Ethiopia $2.9 billion, according to the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute, a private think-tank. That is almost a whole year's output for every farmer in Ethiopia; and more than 80% of the population live on farms.


Wanted: rain, aid and tax cuts

Another problem, strangely, is tax. Ethiopia abandoned feudalism in the 1970s, when the emperor, Haile Selassie, was murdered, but the old feudal habit of taxing peasants persists. The most irksome levy is payable on the land that peasants till, which they are not allowed to own, because the government owns all the land. The sums involved are small, but do not seem so to those who pay them. Mr Oumar usually hands over 60 birr ($7) a year, which he describes as “heavy”. The average Ethiopian income is only $100 a year, but most peasants earn far less.

Tax-collectors generally make an exception for those who are on the verge of starving: this year, Mr Oumar was let off. They tend not to tax nomads either, partly because they are hard to trace, and partly because so many carry submachineguns. But taxes levied on peasants in years when the harvest is good make it hard for them to accumulate a surplus to see them through the bad years.

What is more, taxes must be paid in cash, shortly after harvest time. To raise this cash, peasants all take their spare crops to market at the same time, which depresses prices and means they have to sell more of their crop to meet their tax bill. The tax raises negligible sums for the government (only 1% of total annual revenues), but inflicts serious harm on the most vulnerable Ethiopians. “If we don't pay,” laments Mr Oumar, “they say they'll take our land.”


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