Planning, Not Response, Will Fight Famine


In response to the devastating Ethiopia famine of 1985, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure held their “Live Aid” concert in an appeal to the world to deliver drastic humanitarian assistance. Harrowing images of starvation came directly to two billion people’s television sets. The world was supposed to be outraged and bent on preventing a future calamity of this nature.

Yet in 2003, famine struck Ethiopia again. The international community had clearly not heeded the wake-up call of 18 years earlier. This summer, Ethiopia’s neighbor, Somalia, is suffering from a food crisis that was declared a famine last week by the Unted Nations. Twelve million people are affected in the Horn of Africa.

The prevalence of famine in Africa in the 21st century reflects a glaring flaw in the international food regime: It is reactive to crises and does not invest in the long-term agricultural development that would precisely prevent famines.

A large part of this misguided approach stems from a perception that famine is an inevitable outcome of extreme weather conditions. Yet, political failures are really what underlie starvation, even if drought may be the immediate cause. Ethiopia’s 1985 famine was largely a result of ineffective land policies, whereas the 2003 famine resulted from a World Bank structural adjustment policy that forced the government to remove investment in agriculture.

With climate change threatening to cause more extreme unpredictable weather events, inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will add a new dimension to the political drivers of food crises. In fact, the wealthiest countries — which are also the biggest emitters — should be considered the culprits of any famine induced by the effects of climate change.

Despite today’s era of tight budgets, it would be a mistake to neglect Africa's long-term food security concerns. Increasing spending on agricultural development reduces the incidence of food crises and thus limits spending on emergency response, as Rep. Jim McGovern (D- Mass.) said at a recent hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. According to McGovern, cuts to agricultural development assistance will only heighten poor countries' vulnerability to food crises — to which the U.S. will ultimately have to respond.

In order to transition to a global food regime focused on Africa's agricultural development and not merely on famine response, wealthy countries are going to have to confront entrenched interests. Yet, these issues have largely been off the table in discourses among policymakers. Thus, agricultural development policies need to be more closely aligned with the domestic policies inhibiting such progress.

For example, a few weeks ago the G-20 agriculture ministers convened to take action on speculation in commodity markets and its effect on food price volatility. But that does not address the fundamental ways their countries’ policies contribute to global food insecurity — through farm subsidies and biofuel production. Price supports by the U.S. and Europe for domestic agriculture allow their farmers to sell crops cheaply on the international market, making it impossible for small developing world farmers to compete. And biofuel mandates have diverted cropland away from crops, driving up food prices.

This much-needed coordination between U.S. global food security policy and domestic agriculture policy calls for the creation of a White House Office on Global Hunger and Food Security. Such an office was suggested by the Roadmap to End Global Hunger — launched by a coalition of anti-hunger organizations — which guided legislation sponsored by McGovern, but never passed.

Feed the Future — the U.S. government’s initiative for combating world hunger — has two deputy coordinators, one in the U.S. Agency for International Development and one in the State Department. However, in order to truly be comprehensive, Feed the Future must be more centralized so that it can confront the U.S. policies that impede global agricultural development.

Our global food system must move beyond what Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown calls an “every-country-for-itself philosophy.” Or else, the international community may find itself scrambling to respond to more frequent food crises in an era of high food prices and climate change.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons