Famines in Africa: The Unending Cycle

Published on 20th December 2005

The spate of hunger-related deaths reported across different countries can no longer be dismissed. In the past six years, per capita food-grain absorption in Africa has fallen significantly. As some of the economists have pointed out, such levels were last seen during the early years of World War II or the Somalia and Ethiopia famine. Growing hunger among Africa’s poorer citizens is closely linked with the agrarian crisis sweeping the region, a crisis that is clearly structural and cannot be resolved by band-aid economic measures.

The UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, Mr. Martti Ahrisaari, called on donor countries and agencies to give timely response for tackling humanitarian problems in the region particularly Eritrea. He also underlined that all partners should identify the basic cause of recurrent drought in Eritrea and give prompt response to meet the challenge. Eritrea for instance, has shifted its national priorities and given top importance to achieve food security.

The collapse of food security for millions of Africans in the Horn is tied to socio-economic policies imposed on them in the past few decades. The withdrawal of credit sharpened the crisis in farming. The rural unemployment deepened hunger and drove labor to neighboring countries. The dismantling of public health systems badly affected individual absorption capacities. Besides, the Governments in some of the countries in this region tended to delay food for work programmes until those needing them most left in search for work. The failure of an organized industry to create a decent number of jobs in urban area has greatly reduced its capacity to absorb the outflow of rural labor in the Horn of Africa. If no serious global and regional response comes in time, the Horn of Africa’s experience could be replicated across many countries in North-East Africa and other countries.

But the situation is not all grim, there is hope that the new millennium has brought with it a new consciousness. The Governments in this region have to take appropriate and necessary steps in the coming years to tackle the food insecurity and provide the basic needs and livelihood for the people. Further, they should admit their failure to tackle mass hunger in their respective countries. Besides, the Governments should be transparent and make it clear that economic growth in the region has to be accompanied by equity and social justice. The challenge is to act decisively on this realization.

Niger is the second poorest country in the world. Four-fifths of northern Niger is desert, with very little agriculture, and the country relies heavily on the savannah areas in the south, which are suitable for livestock and crops. Healthcare is not expensive; many mothers cannot afford to take their children to hospital. Last year\'s drought was exacerbated, especially in the north, by an invasion of locusts.

The Niger government explains that the most serious problem is lack of rain. It was reported that the rain was half the normal amount last year. Other problems include: the issue of desertification - the expansion of the Sahara desert southwards. Over-grazing, soil erosion and deforestation. Desertification is a problem that will only get worse across the whole northern area of west Africa. It is to be noted that the problem is not just in Niger but Mali, Nigeria and others. According to Oxfam, a British NGO, 2.2 million people have suffered food shortages in Mali, 700,000 in Mauritania and about 500,000 in Burkina Faso.

It is reported by the Medecins Sans Frontieres\' (MSF), the major aid agency underpinning Niger\'s current relief effort, is calling the problem a “severe nutritional crisis” with an estimated 400,000 children at risk in the Maradi region alone. Reports indicate that 15 children are dying every week. In 2004 it was reported that about 10,000 children suffering severe malnutrition were admitted to MSF field hospitals and clinics in Niger. But in the 2005, from June 21 to July 17, MSF admitted 12,838 children.

The geographical difficulties of getting food to the worst affected areas remain. Niger is a landlocked state, and most food aid has to be imported by bad road, hundreds of kilometers from the ports of neighboring Benin, Togo, and Nigeria. Only few big cities and towns in Niger are connected by paved roads. Most of the people live in remote rural areas.

Even where there is food, it is often too expensive. Though food was imported to compensate for the damage of last year’s harvest caused by drought and a catastrophic invasion of locusts, prices rose due to hoarding. It is observed that many herdsmen and subsistence farmers have lost their animals, and thus the ability to sell their assets to buy food, let alone survive another period of possible drought, should that happen. Others have become too weak to till their plots of land, reducing their chances of surviving beyond the immediate crisis.

The first relief planes from France and aid agencies have just begun to arrive — the British Government has pledged an extra £1 million for the World Food Programme\'s emergency operation in Niger, bringing its total contribution to £3 million.

Unlike countries such as Nigeria that uses its massive oil revenues to import food, Niger\'s economy of only $9 billion (£5.15 billion) depends on its main export, uranium, whose value has decreased dramatically since the nuclear arms race in the 1980s. Niger\'s economic situation is further complicated because it is landlocked deep in western Africa. Supplies must be transported by road through unstable countries such as Ivory Coast or Togo. The country relies on its much wealthier neighbor, Nigeria. The infant mortality is as high as 12 per cent — has been kept to 5 per cent in Niger. It is reported that two children dying on average each day often simply arrive too late to be helped.

 

 


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