The original version of this article, by Edward Carr, appeared on Open the Echo Chamber
After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: The drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia. We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause…which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.
First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts. It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets, and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine. For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security. The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies. The Horn of Africa situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by Al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).
For those who doubt this, look at the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) maps I put in previous posts here and here (Editor: also above). Famine stops at the Somali border. I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have. Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya. Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia meet.
Continue reading on Open the Echo Chamber.
Image Credit: FEWS NET and Edward Carr.