What causes famines?

The terrible famine in the Horn of Africa has brought forth torrents of comment, much of it about the cause of the famine. Fortunately, perhaps, cause is such a very slippery word. Causes can be very close in time and space to their effects, or they can be way the hell and gone. (Likewise solutions, although that’s another story.) So we can have experts of various stripes telling us that the famine was caused by climate change, wasn’t caused by climate change, was caused by civil unrest, was caused by low rains, was caused by the western agro-military hegemony etc etc etc. One of my favourites is Bill Easterly’s comment on Ethiopia:

It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers. … drought has not been as devastating to Ethiopians as their own autocratic governments.

The Lancet likes that quote too, in it’s call today for “a collective response” to health in the Horn of Africa. But while The Lancet acknowledges that there are many “causes,” each with its own peculiarities, it also seems to think that the famine is unacceptable because we live in “an era of advanced agricultural productivity and transportation networks”. In other words, food from somewhere else did not arrive in time.

The Lancet does say that “More and longer-term investments in agriculture and health in Africa are needed alongside a collective global response” and looks for leadership to China which feeds 20% of the planet’s population on 7% of its arable land.1 What kinds of solutions are we likely to see, aside from food from somewhere else arriving more quickly next time? I’m not nearly expert enough to offer advice, but one thing does sound very fishy, and that is the idea of using irrigation to grow more crops. ILRI, which has long experience working with pastoralists in the area, is keeping a close eye on the famine, has published several recent blog posts that suggest that using water for forage for livestock, and allowing pastoralists to move freely to better grazing are sensible long term solutions. The latest post at ILRI Clippings is about a book, Risk and Social Change in an African Rural Economy: Livelihoods in Pastoralist Communities, and sports a conclusion that a lot of people probably don’t want to hear.

[F]uture development activities need to be built on the foundation of the livestock economy, instead of seeking to replace it.

That surely requires some understanding of the role of livestock in the life support systems of the region, and a recognition that, you know, maybe there are local limits to carrying capacity. Of all the many causes of the famine, that seems to be the one that dare not speak its name, at least not in public.

The Lancet draws itself up to its full height to declare, ringingly:

“Such a humanitarian disaster must never be allowed to happen again.”

Which is the standard formula for ending that kind of piece.

But it will be.

  1. I’d like to see the worked example behind that 7% figure. []

2 Replies to “What causes famines?”

  1. There are some relevant findings that skillfully managed pastoral systems help retain water and halt or reverse desertification in arid regions in Africa. See Allan Savory. That doesn’t solve the entire food problem, but it helps. Over time catching and holding more rain can improve a whole region and enable some amount of cropping as well as livestock. There are limits to what a place can produce. We may not know those limits precisely, but they exist.

    1. Absolutely. Not just Savory, but some of the permaculture stuff in that part of the world is also pretty remarkable. Slow down the run off and the rest follows.

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