Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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East African Famine Caused by More Than Drought 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Monday,  October 17 / 11

Zack Gross

The news has been dominated over the past two months by stories of massive famine in East Africa, particularly in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. 

Canadians have been generous in their support of the efforts of relief agencies, the Manitoba Government has stepped up with a $200,000 grant for disaster relief, and our federal government has pledged to match Canadians’ donations one-to-one.

East Africa has always been prone to drought, but more on a once-in-a-decade basis.  In recent years, linked to changing weather patterns with climate change, drought has come every two years. 

The Da’Daab refugee camp in Kenya has been filling up with hundreds of thousands of famine victims, as people struggle to find food for themselves and their malnourished children.

The nomadic, pastoralist way of life in this region, which has persisted for thousands of years, is in danger of disappearing now.

Their rural livelihood having been blown away by dry winds, people are moving to the towns in search of work and income, of which there is very little. 

Relief workers can offer a handout as a short-term measure, but cannot themselves address issues like global warming.

Some have argued that population growth is a root cause of the inability of East Africans to feed themselves.  Twelve million people are at risk of starvation in this region. 

However, the population density and everyday consumption levels in East Africa, say researchers, are only 3% of what they are in comparable dry, rural areas of the US.

African children consume much less than kids in the US and Canada, and are much more valuable to their families in providing farm labour. 

The issue facing Africans is that more and more of their arable land is being used for growing agricultural exports - vegetable, fruit and flowers that end up in European homes.

Meanwhile, the cost of fuel, the use of grain for biofuel, trade regulations that favour rich nations, and the buying up of African land by foreign companies and countries have driven up the average African’s cost of food beyond their ability to pay. 

While North American farmers definitely face challenges, none are as stark and immediate as those faced by their counterparts in Africa.

Another factor that has made the current famine so devastating is the conflict situation in Somalia. 

The past 20 years have shown Somalia as a country with only rudimentary government, as warlords and factions fight for control. 

The US War on Terrorism has focused part of its effort on Somalia, in fighting the al-Shabaab military force. 

When Somalia achieved a somewhat stable Islamic administration, the US countered by supporting an Ethiopian invasion of the country in 2006. 

Even though the invaders were driven out, many of the million people displaced by this war make up the famine victims and refugee camp inhabitants.

The US-backed “government” in Somalia was corrupt and weak and ultimately the country has been divided again with al-Shabaab in charge in key famine areas. 

With no official help coming to them from the US, the UN or other Western Powers, with al-Shabaab refusing to allow local government to organize and act against the famine, and with all sides using the famine as a tool in their military efforts (such as attacks on hospitals and camps), the crisis exploded without any side prepared to admit their part in it.

 People in “developed” countries, although they feel anxiety about global concerns and may make occasional cash donations to help out, often don’t see a way out of the overwhelming problems of our world.  Creating a better world may be the “art of the possible
,” but hunger, war and climate change seem to be unstoppable and inevitable.  Media coverage can go a long way in shaping how we see the current famine and what we may be prepared to do about it. 

Much of the reporting that we see leaves us with the feeling that Africans are helpless victims or, indeed, that their problems are their own fault.

The Glasgow Media Group interviewed Britons to determine how these feelings were created and how to change them.  They found that the emotional, sensational and without-context reporting that we get in the mass media is the culprit. 

Most media outlets seem to believe that their viewers and readers would not bother to learn about the history, politics and economics of famine in East Africa – that they only want the “human interest” side. 

However, the majority of the public interviewed proved to be interested in better understanding issues like the scramble for African mineral and agricultural resources and geopolitical power. 

As well, the public wanted to understand the causes and effects of climate change, urbanization, trade and military alliances, our own governments’ and corporations’ role in world problems, and ultimately our own role as consumers and citizens.

Ultimately, making a difference in the struggle of East Africans to survive and eventually to be able to feed themselves sustainably is all about addressing a variety of issues that cause hunger. 

We must also explode the myths and biases we carry that make such hardships seem inevitable or acceptable. 

This means that we must respond with a generous donation, a greater effort to understand the issues, and a readiness to act, as consumers and citizens, to change the conditions that lead to famine.



Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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