Drought, poverty and famine in East Africa

Am I the only one who feels distinctly uneasy about the rhetoric surrounding the impending famine in East Africa?  Of course, we should do everything we can to sustain those who are starving.  Of course the images in our media of starving mothers and dying children are harrowing, but that it was they are intended to be.

I am minded of discussions that I once participated in at the offices of a major bilateral donor on the subject of their new programme of planned support for Ethiopia.  This was almost a decade ago, but I recall being shocked at how little support was intended for simple things such as the creation of effective small scale irrigation systems and grain storage facilities.  Drought happens.  It always has, and it always will.  Fluctuations in climate occur regardless of any human induced climate change.  Hence, programmes of development assistance should be doing all that they can to ensure that food production in poor countries is increased and that surpluses are retained to enable governments to withstand the droughts that will always come again.

According to DFID’s web-site the current top priorities for  its funding for Ethiopia are:

  • Addressing the underlying causes of poverty and fragility through new support for wealth creation, peace and security and tackling the effects of climate change
  • Ensuring better access to basic services, enabling millions of people to go to school, drink clean water and access basic health care”

Note that there is nothing here about agricultural production or food security.  Other donors are little different.  Might not more attention to sustaining effective agricultural production so that the devastating impact of drought could be mitigated have been sensible, so that the misery and suffering of so many poor people could have been reduced?  If some of the large sums of money now being spent on famine relief had been spent instead on effective drought mitigation methods, the severity of the crisis could have been reduced.

But this is not just the fault of donor policy.  The governments of the affected countries must also take their share of the blame.  Lawlessness, war, violence and high levels of military expenditure do not make for a stable background against which effective rural development programmes can be implemented. Piracy on the high seas is not a particularly good means of encouraging sustained agricultural production that could reduce the impact of drought.  For too long, governments of some poor countries have continued on development strategies that do not sufficiently address the needs of the poor, relying on the richer countries of the world to come to the rescue when their peoples are starving.  There will come a time when taxpayers in countries providing development assistance will start to realise just how inappropriate much so-called development expenditure really is, and ask questions about the continuing sense of helping such governments with continuing ‘aid’.  DFID is spending £331 million a year on average in support of the Ethiopia government until 2015.  This aid has clearly had insufficient impact on the ability of the country to prevent mass hunger.

For how long will people continue to respond to the media images pulling at our heart-strings to persuade us to fund the errors in development policy that mean that so many people in East Africa are now starving? The impending famine is not ultimately caused by drought, but rather by the policies of national governments, both donors and recipients of development assistance alike. The time has come for a radical re-think of such development assistance.  The time has also come for people to demand real and effective change from their governments in poor countries, so that the impact of drought will never again be felt in the way that the poor of East Africa are now suffering.


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Filed under Africa, Development

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