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This Nov. 4, 2008 file photo shows members of Somalia's al-Shabab jihadist movement during exercises at their military training camp outside Mogadishu.


The first part of a week-long look at the crisis in the Horn of Africa

I have never quite believed that simplistic formula invoked in so many modern famines: "caused by a severe drought."

Not that there isn't a severe drought now in southern Somalia, neighbouring Ethiopia and parts of Kenya. There undeniably is. Last October to December, rains did not appear at all in the area. The March-April rains this year were late. My skepticism arises, though, because I come from perhaps the driest continent on Earth, which has suffered recurrent droughts from earliest settler experience, including the El Nino-influenced drought that seemed to run nearly non-stop from the early 1990s to last year. Many of our farmers were forced off land their families had held for generations.

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There has always been drought-induced anguish in the Australian bush. But no one starves. Malnutrition, undeniably, and particularly in indigenous communities, but no famine.

How is it the citizens of drought-stricken homelands in Somalia and the "triangle of death" have none of the guarantees my drought-stricken compatriots have? It's because, as the famed aphorism of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen puts it, "no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy."

Similarly, an Irish friend of mine, a respected historian of famine named Cormac Ó Gráda, writes, "Agency is more important than a food-production shortfall. Mars counts for more than Malthus." In contrast to Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, the 19th-century population theorist who blamed overpopulation and land overuse for the Irish famine, Mr. Ó Gráda sees war and other human actions as the engines of famine. His point is evident in the Horn of Africa now.

One of the affected areas of Ethiopia is, for example, the Ogaden, whose people consider themselves kinsman of the Somalis and are similarly Muslim. It is in their territory that conflict between the Ethiopian army and Somali rebels has occurred over recent years, with many savageries and violation.

The central regime in Addis Ababa has never felt kindly or acted tenderly toward the Ogadenians anyhow, nor given them a decent share of roads or clinics or schools. Is it a priority now to feed and care for them?

All famines share common qualities, a similar DNA, that reduce acts of God like drought from real causes to mere tipping or triggering mechanisms. Famines often occur where farming and grazing are suddenly disrupted to fit some ideological plan of the leaders of the country, as in Mao's Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, Ethiopia in the 1980s and North Korea repeatedly since the mid-1990s.

Famines also strike in areas where people live in hunger and malnutrition year after year. Malnutrition is a sensitivity-numbing word – it does not capture the swollen joints, flaking skin, retarded growth, porous and fragile bone, diminished height, lethargy and disabling confusion of soul that characterize it.

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As it's been said, a malnourished child can still howl out; a starving one has no strength to.

As many as 60 per cent of North Korean children aged six months to seven years were malnourished in 2010, so they were set up to become the victims of famine over the past year. Once again, ideology and military priorities offer a better explanation than mere food shortage: The regime's re-evaluation of its currency wiped out the spending power of families, all to sustain itself and its army.

Similarly, southern Somalia, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, had the highest level of child malnutrition on Earth in July this year. A few unlucky factors, and malnutrition becomes famine.

People in that rural hinterland already lived off only a few food staples. Among some pastoral people who survive by livestock holdings, death of animals by June this year was reaching 60 per cent. The value of a cow relative to how much grain a family could buy with it had fallen by two-thirds. Grain and lentils are what farmers live off there. As with the Irish and their buttermilk and potatoes long ago, the East African diet is balanced on a two-legged stool. Still, if drought were the cause, we could just help them until the rains returned. But it's the helping that is complicated. Climate isn't the complication; humans are.

Refusing aid from an ideological ‘enemy'

The Ethiopian army invaded a civil-war-savaged Somalia in 2006 and, after a hard-fisted occupation, installed an unpopular and only partly successful transitional federal government. Assorted militias, such as the oft-mentioned al-Shabab ("the youth"), retained the hinterland, where conflicts, raids and molestation of citizens by both sides have been common ever since.

Al-Shabab has been driven from Mogadishu, but it is the most commonly cited military villain in this famine. Al-Shabab believes that many Western agencies oppose it because of its desire to make Somalia an Islamist state.

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Therefore, it restricts the entry of agencies and non-governmental organizations into its area to those it considers neutral – Red Cross and Red Crescent in particular. It rules out the World Food Program and UNICEF and agencies such as CARE. It has created its own Office for the Supervision to Regulate the Affairs of Foreign Agencies.

There is denial that famine actually exists too. "The UN wants Somalia to be in famine," a spokesman, Ali Mohamud Rage, has said. "They want push pressure on us through such calls. We agree that there is hunger in some areas, but there is no famine in Somalia."

Agencies and aid bodies are not always without their flaws, but it is al-Shabab, not drought, that stands between the starving and the food.

Al-Shabab not only threatens aid workers but tries to prevent and punish refugees who try to cross into so-called Christian countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya.

It must be terrifying for the men, women and children now trying to get into Kenya to find themselves surrounded by militia men emerging from the thorn trees.

Is the transitional federal government in Mogadishu an improvement or another face of the problem?

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It seems that it is either too venal or too powerless to prevent the plunder of aid food.

Joakim Gundul, a Kenyan assessor of aid results, says, "While helping starving people, you are also feeding the power groups who make a business out of the disaster. … You're saving people's lives today so they can die tomorrow."

How the new honesty might backfire

It seems to me that in earlier famines, this issue of human agency has not been nearly as honestly and openly discussed by journalists and officials. K'naan, the famed multitalented Canadian Somali, is rightly appalled at what he sees as a slow reaction of the world to this crisis, but the question arises whether the greater honesty about human blame is slowing the response.

The vigour and enthusiasm that came into play in the West's reaction to the Ethiopian famines of the early 1980s has not yet appeared.

Aid to Ethiopia lagged in the early phases of that famine too. The West was dubious about then-president Mengistu Haile Mariam's closeness to the Soviets until BBC and CBC footage, combined with the involvement of rock stars and telethons, shamed governments into increasing the flow of aid.

And not only governments: A farmer from Guelph, Ont., Fred Benson, galvanized by the news from Ethiopia, gave his 107-acre farm to a Mennonite aid agency for the sake of people whose faces he had never seen.

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Yet it wasn't much discussed at the time that Mr. Mengistu was arming his troops for a so-called Red Star offensive against the Eritrean rebels with expensive Russian armaments bought with the substance of his starving nation.

With my own eyes, at the time, I saw the astonishing quantities of arms and aircraft he had brought to Eritrea, when I was caught unexpectedly for the better part of the week in a besieged town named Nacfa in the Eritrean highlands.

As an Eritrean minder told me, "He's blowing schools and clinics out of the mouth of his cannon."

At the same time, Mr. Mengistu was putting great emphasis on celebrating the 10th anniversary of his regime, such that Addis Ababa became a Disneyland of Stalinist achievement in the midst of a hungering populace.

Few voices were raised to tell us all this, or to tell us about the forced resettlement of millions into unfamiliar country. If we had known it all, would Fred Benson have been as generous? Would there have been a Bob Geldof?

For us today, unfortunately, this Horn of Africa famine is another in a string of almost expected events. We expect that the world will get some emergency aid there. We feel as if we have heard the whole story before. Yet it is an utterly fresh and terrifying experience for the people of the "triangle." They have tried every way of survival. They have skimped at meals, have seen what crops they could grow wither and have lost their livestock or tried to sell them in a glutted market. Meanwhile, the grain shortage sends prices up, and even encourages hoarding by merchants, while in their huts farmers face the massive question of whether they should eat next year's seed crop, one of the final acts of familial desperation.

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These starving have looked for eyes of undigested grain in cow manure; they have foraged for wild foods, yehub nuts and berries, in competition with their neighbours. Any family jewellery has been sold. Many starving women probably have been forced to make a Sophie's choice, whether to feed a child likely to die or one not already sick.

And as they slide toward starvation, the devastation of their immune systems will attract assaults by opportunist bacteria. There's no sense of banal repetition in their struggles.

Perhaps we must try a new theorem: to try to get the Somalis and the Ethiopians fed precisely because their governments have not yet created societies in which supply and support are taken for granted.

Aid agencies could be given breaks from endless pie charts about administration costs and aid delivery per donor dollar and stop pretending that they will be permitted to go everywhere they like and to do all the good they can. They should simply invite us into the general struggle to deliver aid as energetically, cleverly and well as the malign circumstances on the desolate ground permit them.

As for the regimes, Mr. Sen's statement glimmers like a tinsel promise, an undeniable though not immediately useful tool, out there in what aid workers call "the field."

But in approaching that dilemma – how to make regimes behave – I have moved far into "wiser-heads-than-mine" territory. And by the time we solved it, there would be millions dead in Africa.

Thomas Keneally, an Australian novelist and writer, is the Booker Prize-winning author of Schindler's Ark (which became the film Schindler's List ), The Great Shame and, recently, Three Famines: Starvation and Politics.

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