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Over the last few weeks the media has been highlighting the plight of Africans in the East and Horn who are caught in the grip of a severe food crisis. Stories of malnutrition and migration are dominating news even as governments, international NGOs and donors scramble to address the issue.  Most reports talk about the failure of rains for the second year in succession as leading to this crisis. Geography and climate (& climate change) are the usually proffered reasons for recurrent food crisis in Africa.

This is no doubt true but there are even more fundamental reasons why this region has been chronically food insecure for the last 4 decades. Here are my top 5 reasons, in no particular order and all are inter-connected.

1.      Lack of global political will : As far back as 1970, donor nations pledged spending 0.7% of their Gross National Income on poverty alleviation. 40 years hence, few do so. Jeffrey Sachs, the head of the UN Millennium project has argued in his book ‘The End of Poverty‘ that poverty alleviation will take only a fraction of the resources that are today spent on military misadventures. Sadly military expenditure rarely achieves its publicly stated ends be they installation of democracy, elimination of terror etc.

2.      Deliberate marginalisation : A number of African leaders, and I use the word ‘leaders’ very gingerly, deliberately marginalise whole communities for their own political ends. This no doubt happens all over the world. In Africa it is not even subtle. This marginalisation takes many forms –

  • denial of education, health and other services
  • deliberately disparaging the contributions of these peoples to the economy,
  • poor investments are made in infrastructure,
  • denial of voice
  • stifling leadership

It is no surprise then that these are the very regions & peoples that repeatedly bear the brunt of a food crisis. These are also the people that take up arms when the oppression gets too much. Once there is nothing left to lose, there is no fear either.

3.      Conflict : Nothing is as draining as conflict. Livelihood systems get destroyed. Fields remain fallow. Pasture lands are destroyed, imperiling livestock. Youth lose their lives leaving the aged to care for the very young. Market systems don’t come up. Governments don’t / cannot invest in infrastructure or services. Poverty becomes endemic and conflict zones become chronically food insecure. It is no coincidence that the areas that are facing the present crisis are also conflict zones. Many of these conflicts can be ameliorated if not stopped. Political will, or lack thereof, comes into play.  This is not just national – happens all the time at international level. For instance, let us look at South Sudan which is also in the midst of a food crisis. That however, is paling into insignificance compared to the security crisis it faces just as it is about to become an independent nation by seceding from the North, on the 9th of July. South Sudan needs international attention and peace keeping. It needs it NOW. Alas the United Nations Peace keeping Mission has no money. All they can do is keep a token and totally ineffective force and wring their hands in frustration. Why do they not have the money? Is there none? Just look at these figures and make up your mind. In 2010 the five permanent members of the UN Security council spent US $ 996 Billion on military expenditure. The budget for the UN Peacekeeping force, globally, for the same period was US $ 9 billion.

4.      Corruption : Leaders often look at acquisition of power as their ‘turn to eat’ rather than an opportunity to develop their nation. Corruption permeates through the bureaucracy and reaches the poor who ‘need’ to bribe to survive. Valuable development funds are lost in this process as a few rich & powerful get richer and more powerful.

5.      Stranglehold of the international food lobby : most food crises are artificial. There are adequate food stocks, sometimes even within a country but they don’t reach those who need them. Farm subsidies in developed countries, trade barriers, diversion of cereals to bio-fuels and hoarders create shortages leading to rising prices and empty markets. The poor then end up selling productive assets at distress rates leaving them even more vulnerable in the future.

These are all human made conditions and therefore can be addressed. Nay, they should be addressed. Without alleviation of poverty, wars on terror are meaningless. Each day I see reports of Kenyan youth being attracted to Al Shabab (the terror outfit based in Somalia), not necessarily out of political conviction but out of frustration and because they look at it as a livelihood option. I have seen similar stories in Afghanistan.

The need of the hour is to intervene in the affected areas and support the affected with cash, food, water and health interventions in the immediate term. It is also clear that livelihood recovery support will be required in the medium term. However, to even aspire for a longer term solution, we need to address the issues that lie at the core of the problem or else in a couple of years, we will be spinning the same old story.

A quote from Mahatma Gandhi sums it up for me ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need not for everyone’s greed’. Malthusian predictions notwithstanding, I believe this to be true 70 years after it was first said.