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A Somali refugee carries leaves the World Food Program distribution centre at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, on Aug. 1, 2011. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)
A Somali refugee carries leaves the World Food Program distribution centre at the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, on Aug. 1, 2011. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Tom Flanagan

The toxic politics of famine Add to ...

It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers. – economist William Easterly

The United Nations has officially declared a famine, the first since 1984. Then it was Ethiopia, now it’s Somalia. Both countries are in the Horn of Africa, a region subject to frequent drought, but the more important common factor is toxic politics. In 1984, it was the Derg’s Marxist dictatorship in Ethiopia; now it’s the failure of the Somalian state and the presence of the al-Shabaab Islamic radicals.

Throughout history, periodic famine was a tragic part of the human condition. Drought, floods or cold weather would kill crops and drive away game, leaving subsistence farmers and hunters without the means of life. But modern civilization, with improved agricultural productivity and transportation networks, has largely eliminated mass deaths due to starvation. Crop failures still cause hardship in specific regions, but there’s plenty of food elsewhere in the world. Once compassion is mobilized, relief can be delivered by rail, road or air.

Under modern conditions, hunger becomes lethal on a large scale only when crop failure is exacerbated by politics. The pattern emerged with the famine of the 1840s in Ireland. Potato crops failed all over Europe, but there was mass death in Ireland because the British had built few roads, railways and harbours in their troublesome colony and had left the Irish peasantry in degraded circumstances where death was just one failed harvest away.

There was no shortage of food in an absolute sense; Ireland continued to export grain throughout the famine. But with governors and governed of different nationalities, there was no political will to get food to those who needed it and couldn’t buy it. The story repeated itself throughout the 19th century in many Asian and African colonies of the European imperial powers.

The 20th century invented a new form of famine, caused by totalitarian visions of social reorganization, compounded by the deliberate use of hunger to punish opponents of the regime. Ukrainian peasants starved by the millions in the 1930s during the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Even greater mass starvation occurred in China, starting in 1958 with Mao’s Great Leap Forward. More recent Marxist-inspired famines include Ethiopia in 1984; North Korea’s repeated famines in the 1990s and 2000s; and the terrible hunger caused by Robert Mugabe’s assaults on the property rights of white farmers in Zimbabwe and on the democratic aspirations of his black political opponents.

Now this century is witnessing a famine caused by Islamic radicalism. The rains have failed, as they often do, all over the Horn of Africa, causing hardship in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya. But there is mass death only in southern Somalia, where prolonged civil war has left no central government to organize relief. Al-Shabaab, which dominates much of the south, is trying to profit from the crop failure, alternatively levying tolls on relief columns or barring them altogether in an attempt to starve out political opponents. Desperate Somalis have no choice but to trek to refugee camps in Kenya.

As always, Canada is giving generously to the relief effort. But we should be clear-sighted in our analysis of what’s going on. The underlying problem is not global warming or global capitalism or the Harper government’s attempt to refocus our foreign aid on Latin America. The underlying problem is the fanatical politics of men whose messianic visions place no value on human life.

Above all, we must strive to prevent a repetition of what so often happens, as humanitarian assistance is appropriated by those who have caused the disaster (Ethiopia, North Korea, Hutu génocidaires fleeing Rwanda), thus causing further loss of life. As the saying goes, we need “soft hearts but hard heads” to confront these political disasters.

Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a scion of the Irish potato famine.

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