UN World Food Programme

The changing face of famine

Despite China’s rapid economic growth and India’s healthy democracy, you could say that there’s one area where Africa beats the Asian giants: in the famine stakes. Dr Stephen Devereux, editor of the book “The New Famines” (Routledge 2006) talks to WFP web writer Michelle Hough about why Africa is on the frontline of the chronic hunger battle.

Despite China’s rapid economic growth and India’s healthy democracy, you could say that there’s one area where Africa beats the Asian giants: in the famine stakes. Dr Stephen Devereux, editor of the book “The New Famines” (Routledge 2006) talks to WFP web writer Michelle Hough about why Africa is now on the frontline of the chronic hunger battle.

For many of us the face of famine is black, it’s poor and it is above all African.

Through the fuzzy focus of the international news machine chronic hunger seems to have a stranglehold on this vast continent, and most of us probably can’t remember a time when it was any different. However, do a bit of Googling and you’ll find that the top ten worst famines of the twentieth century all took place in Asia.

The media is a major famine prevention tool

Dr Stephen Devereux

In a presentation at WFP’s Rome headquarters for the book “The New Famines”, Dr Stephen Devereux lays it out clearly in a bar chart: over 30 million people dead China in 1958, 9 million dead in the Soviet Union in 1921 and over 7 million people killed by famine in the Soviet Union in 1932.

If you compare the estimated one million who died in the most recent African famine, Ethiopia in 1984, to the large numbers killed in the previous fifty years, there has been a positive change – even though 854 million people around the world are still desperately hungry.

Relative improvment

“There has been a relative improvement,” says Dr Devereux. “Nowadays there are less famines and they affect less people.”

Dr Devereux explains that Asia made the move away from famine through improved infrastructure, technology, agriculture and market access, all of which improved food availability.

Democracy also gave people a voice and the power to protect one of their most basic rights: access to food. In India, the post-independence government was made accountable through a social contract outlining the eradication of famine. The country hasn’t since experienced famine – although the same can’t be said for chronic under-nutrition, which is rife.

Reversal of fortunes

If you look at Africa, says Dr Devereux, not only have factors such as agriculture and democracy not improved, but in some cases there’s been a reversal.

For example, food production in Malawi is falling because families with more children have less land to farm. This is exacerbated by the fact that new generations still rely on farming for their livelihoods rather than moving towards new skills.

"Bread basket"

Zimbabwe used to be known as the “bread basket” of its region but now food shortages are frequent.

“In countries such as Zimbabwe and Somalia, poor governance and conflict increase poverty, which increases hunger,” says Dr Devereux.

“Meanwhile, in countries such as Ethiopia and Malawi, weak democracy has not strengthened citizens’ democratic voices and hunger remains an issue. In Africa, weak democratic processes often exist because minorities take over and exclude the majority,” he says.

Another major problem is the dominance of HIV/AIDS in some African countries. Dr Devereux says that AIDS has been a big factor in the resurgence of famine in Africa in the past twenty years because it depletes people’s resources and coping mechanisms.

Failure to respond

In the era of “The New Famines”, as our potential to eradicate famine increases, so does our potential to cause it, according to Dr Devereux. He thinks that now hunger crises are no longer caused by either food scarcity or market failure, a failure to respond is to blame.

Our biggest challenge is to move beyond emergencies and have a sustained attacked on hunger. We need to make ending global hunger a political priority
Dr Stephen Devereux

National governments may not be able to protect food security due to conflict or natural disasters. The international community, on the other hand, tends to prioritise some crises rather than others.

“Some famines get international attention, others don’t,” explains Dr Devereux. “There was a big reaction to the possibility of famine in the Balkans in the 1990s because famine in Europe would have been unacceptable. Iraq got action. Sudan hasn’t.”

Media old and new

In the “new famine” scenario, the heady mix of national governments, NGOs and the international community means it’s often difficult to lay accountability at the feet of one actor. And besides, no crisis should ever be allowed to get to the emergency stage when fingers are being pointed because it should have been spotted and dealt with earlier, says Dr Devereux.

“The media is a major famine prevention tool,” says Dr Devereux. “It highlights crises that have been concealed and forces people to respond, such as in Malawi in 2002.”

He goes one step further and suggests that victims of hunger can use new media such as the internet to raise awareness about their condition. I tell him that one refugee in a Kenyan camp did exactly that when he sent a text message to WFP in London to say the people in the camp didn’t have enough food.

Before hunger takes hold

Dr Devereux stresses that the media shouldn’t just focus on the powerful images created once famine has firmly taken hold eg. starving children and mass migration.

It should get in there earlier on in the process, when the situation is less “camera friendly” and highlight the numbers affected. It’s worth remembering that the effects of malnutrition kill many more people than famine.

WFP tackles hunger before it takes hold with projects such as school feeding and food-for-work which have the dual purpose of providing food assistance while promoting education and training - and in the long-run, providing a brighter future for beneficiaries.

Hopes for the future

Dr Devereux is hopeful for the future. He thinks the “Right to Food” campaign and other international initiatives will increase and there will be a concerted attempt to prevent famine.

He envisages democracy improving in countries wracked by food insecurity, and biotechnology may offer the potential to increase and stabilise food production. Nevertheless, AIDS will continue to be a big problem, in his opinion.

But, says Dr Devereux, wiping famine from the face of Africa will only be possible if the political will is behind it.

“Our biggest challenge is to move beyond emergencies and have a sustained attacked on hunger. We need to make ending global hunger a political priority,” says Dr Devereux.