Why Do Famines Occur in Africa?
Go into a school and ask children to draw a picture of a famine victim, and the colour of crayon they'll grab is easy to predict. The stereotype of a starving person is an African. And it’s accurate. In the 1800’s famines took place on every continent. In the past 40 years, by contrast, all the famines have been in Africa (with one exception, which I’ll come to later). Why? There are several possible explanations. I’ll give you the best four, starting with the least persuasive and ending with the most.
The first possible reason is climate. East Africa, which is where most famines in the last century have occurred, has areas that get very little rain—especially Somalia. As a result, soils are poor and some areas have very little vegetation. Farmers struggle in good times. When drought comes, as it regularly does, the results can be catastrophic.
However, climate is not the key explanation for famine, because there are other parts of the world with consistently low rainfall where people don’t starve. Chile and Southern California are good examples. Drought can lead to famine, but it doesn’t have to.
The second possible explanation for why most famines take place in Africa is poverty. When crops fail in wealthy parts of the world, governments can bring in food from elsewhere. Poor countries struggle to do the same. Even if they can get food, people can still die, for at least two reasons. One, less developed countries tend to have worse roads, which can make it impossible for aid agencies to get food to where it’s needed. Two, in poor countries like Ethiopia and South Sudan levels of nutrition and health are already low—making people even more vulnerable to starvation.
But poverty doesn’t doom you any more than drought does. Kenya was on the brink of disaster in 1984 but its government was able to avert the threat. There was drought and poverty but no mass starvation.
That points to the third explanation for why famines occur where they do—politics. It’s the best one we’ve looked at so far. In 1984, while Kenyans were suffering from drought but staying alive, more than a million Ethiopians died. Why? Kenya was a capitalist democracy, giving their government the ability to buy food and move it to the affected areas. There has never been a famine in a democracy.
By contrast, Ethiopia had a Marxist government. People either didn’t own land or they couldn’t profit from it—which meant they had little incentive to maximize food production. The government was in charge of the economy, but was ineffective when crisis hit. The story was similar in Sudan and Somalia. The only famine in the past forty years outside Africa was in Communist North Korea. The worst famine in history took place in Communist China.
Another political problem in East Africa has been the tendency of one ethnic group to seize power and then use it for the benefit of their own people at the expense of others. As one politician put it, the winners get the meat from the cow but if you lose, you’re left only with bones.
This explains much of the violence that has devastated countries in East Africa. If political power is the way to get resources for your people it’s no surprise that people fight for it.
That brings us to the most important explanation for famine in the modern world—war. Sometimes governments use hunger as a weapon. For example, the Koch region of South Sudan gets plenty of rain. Two years ago it was thriving. Now it is on the losing side in a civil war and the group in power is making it very hard for aid agencies to get essential supplies to the region. Somalia has seen similar, evil tragedies.
Even if no particular group is a target, war can make a drought deadly. Mines and damaged roads make it harder to get food to where it’s needed. As people gather in towns or camps for safety, disease spreads. Fighting disrupts farming, which means less food next year. Armies loot grain to feed themselves. As a Somali proverb puts it, “Where there is war there is drought, where there is peace there is milk.”
The World Bank now says that the primary cause of suffering in the world is war. If you look at countries currently at risk of famine—Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen—there are conflicts in all of them. Western countries that meddled in Africa bear some responsibility for all the dysfunction and wars. So do the people who run these countries now. A hundred years ago, famines weren’t always preventable. Now they are. National governments and the international community need to do more, until the only famines we read about are the ones in history books.