Chapter 1: The Famine

‘Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century. This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth.’ There had been famine in Ethiopia since at least 1983, but it was this BBC television broadcast, in October 1984, which is generally credited with having broken through the veil of ignorance.

Yet the famine was no secret. African governments had been doing their best to whip up international concern and there had been countless newspaper articles, television programmes and radio broadcasts about it. But whatever the individual impact of such pieces they were not to force a major international response until these strange haunting words with the graphic pictures of passive famine victims were flashed across the world. By that point there were serious food shortages in twenty African countries and millions of lives were at risk. Many had already been lost. For some African countries, international attention only came when the worst of the crisis was already over. (Throughout, we use the term Africa to refer to sub-Saharan Africa unless otherwise specified.)

This report is partly about how such a tragedy could have gone ‘undiscovered’ for so long. It seeks to establish why nothing happened until television alerted the world to a, by then, old disaster.


At each stage, from its genesis in rural poverty and food­ production failures through to the reduction of communities to destitution and starvation, famine is avoidable. More than that, its causes are much more complex than just bad luck with the weather. The simple assumption that, if the rains fail, as they have in recent years in much of Africa, less food will be grown and people will inevitably starve, may be a comfortable abdication of any human responsibility for what has happened. But it is a misleading simplification. At each stage of the slow-burning fuse that can lead to famine other factors have fanned the flames.

Famine is that moment when a group’s normal access to food so completely collapses that mass starvation occurs. But it is wrong to leave the definition at that. Famine is also characterized by widespread disruption as people migrate or in other ways radically break with normal behaviour in their search for food. A lot of statistics have been thrown around about the number of people affected by the famine. Statistics are a handy tool much too lightly used to dramatize tragic situations; their variety and vagueness under­ mine.

Most Africans have an inadequate diet at the best of times. Famine conditions rarely occur in a country as a whole but in particular localities. By early 1985 the United Nations had refined its estimates of the numbers seriously affected by food shortages and in urgent need of food aid to 30 million.

A further indication of the precise scope of the disaster is the calculation that it has created up to 10 million migrants. Elsewhere, governments have the means to avert such migrations with the political and social consequences they bring with them but not in Africa. In all the countries that map I shows as being seriously affected by famine, there have been very large movements of people. These have either been within countries or, increasingly, across national borders, for example, from Ethiopia and Chad into Sudan, from Niger into Nigeria and so on.

Famine then is more than people dying from starvation. It is an acute breakdown of society that brings turmoil that cannot be ignored. This can take different forms: the list­ less passive victims in the Ethiopian relief camps probably were, as it happened, more effective in generating action than say, bread riots would have been. A major famine-relief operation in Sudan had already begun on the tail of the Ethiopian famine before the bread riots in Khartoum in April 1985. But whether protesting or reduced to listlessness by hunger, famine victims are a threat to stability. This differentiates famine from the endemic life-threatening hunger that is the permanent lot of many Africans. At the time of the last major African famine in the early 1970s, it was thought that chronic hunger and malnutrition were the regular condition of eighty million Africans. That number is now 100 million. Each year the rate of growth of the population exceeds that of food production. The permanent food crisis therefore worsens year by year.

So famine is the tip of a much bigger underlying crisis. Even when Ethiopia is free of famine, 1000 children are thought to die each day of malnutrition and related ill­nesses. What distinguishes famine from starvation and run­of-the-mill food shortages, however severe, is that famine is political. In desperation starving people flee their homes and by doing so they drop their problem into someone else’s lap, either their own government or the neighbouring government and the international community. There are currently large numbers of destitute migrants, famine victims, on the outskirts of many of the towns and cities of the affected African countries.

It need not be like that. For example, in parts of Asia with potential famine risk, villagers are usually able to muster enough public influence to get government assistance before they are forced to migrate in search of food. Obviously, that is a much more satisfactory state of affairs than leaving help until later when people are destitute and far from home. But at whatever stage outside aid comes, the crucial factor is that the victims have exhausted their own means of coping and outsiders, be they the local authorities, the national government or foreign donors feel obliged to intervene and do something about it.

The victims of the present famine in Africa are the rural poor. Almost without exception they are people who are powerless. Many live outside the normal reach of government services. Among the countries which have been worst hit, there have been large numbers of people living on the edge of the Sahara desert where often the only viable agriculture is nomadic livestock raising. Even at the best of times there may not be enough water for crops. Nomads, particularly, have little regular access to schools, health clinics and other services, let alone the opportunity to organize themselves as a force to reckon with. Peasant farmers are often little better off.

Ironically, only the ultimate crisis of destitution, famine, has brought these people a voice, and even then not an organized one. But in their distress they suddenly pose a threat to governmental structures and are at last able to impose themselves on the conscience of others. In that latter aspect the power of the media, especially television, has been crucial.

Famine, as a word, carries with it the implication that the user means to do something about it: bring help; criticize others for not doing enough; contribute to a charity collection; but certainly in some way to act. It is an acknowledgement that fellow human beings have reached, that stage of utter despair where we must help.

This report looks at how the crisis of African rural life can be brought into view so that the symptoms of famine can be detected at an early stage and treated before there is massive destitution or loss of life. Although earlier relief assistance can limit the human costs, the more important ambition must be to help communities to restore the economic viability of rural life and so reduce the risk of famine. For both purposes, we are persuaded that, because famine is the visible dimension of a long-standing crisis of Africa’s rural poor, what is essential is that policies be pursued which economically and politically re-enfranchise this group and so address the underlying causes. Farmers’ traditional capacity to cope with routine setbacks of weather must be restored and strengthened.

An emphasis on the rural sector is now the established wisdom of both governments and the international aid community. In the chapters that follow we show how this process has been, despite good intentions, counterproductive. If Africa is not to stumble from one famine to another with increasing frequency, the rural poor must be put first. In some countries, this understanding is being translated into reality. Throughout, policies made for urban people by urban people have pushed aside the needs of the rural majority. Food prices have been kept artificially low to benefit urban consumers rather than rural producers. Investment, education and welfare have gone to the towns first. The crisis is one not just of neglect but also policy errors. When policies have touched on the countryside they have often demonstrated doubtful priorities. For example, when there have been price incentives for producers often they have· been for cash crops rather than local foods. Irrigation schemes have overlooked overall water shortage and the farming practices of the area. Aid projects have often encouraged nomads to give up their old lives and settle down in a way the land cannot support. The list is depressingly long.

The consequence is that far from the dramatic spotlight of famine, the quality of rural life as a whole is deteriorating dangerously. The loss of forests means that each year people are having to go further and further in search of firewood; women are spending an even larger number of working hours carrying water from distant sources; live­stock owners have to migrate ever further in search of grazing land; cultivators are forced to leave shorter and shorter fallow periods before re-using land.

It is easy to dismiss comparisons between Africa and, say, India or China. The soils of the Asian countries are generally richer. Nevertheless the contrasting agricultural performance gives some measure of how badly wrong things have gone in Africa. India, population about 740 million, has a land area only a third larger than Sudan, population 21 million. India feeds itself. This year Sudan will not; and many of its neighbours have lost all foreseeable prospect of feeding themselves again.

The pages that follow offer hope to those who fear an endless African dependence on external aid. Criticism of what has-gone wrong carries with it the assumption that things can equally well be put right. Recovery does not rest only on luck or the weather but also on good organization in the broadest sense. Those African governments which are trying to redress the situation must be actively encouraged and helped to do so.

There is a need to make a balanced assessment of how the African crisis arose, not in order to assign blame but to suggest alternatives to whatever failures of policy have occurred. It is not enough to debate to what extent the disaster is natural or man-made. It is equally important to bear in mind the inhospitable international environment as well as domestic economic conditions. That some in Africa have used the weather as an excuse to cover failures of policy does not invalidate the enormous difficulties under which African agriculture operates. There is a degree of variability of rainfall not experienced in temperate zones. In some semi-arid areas rain has not fallen for years. African farmers, especially those in such areas, have always existed in a precarious balance with their harsh environment. In recent years, this balance has been disturbed. The land has been unable to meet the demands put upon it and has degenerated. Instead of nature producing its own harsh correctives to the cycle of drought and rain­fall, an ecological and human disaster has engulfed parts of Africa.

Superimposed on the harsh rigours of climate has been an equally unfavourable international economic environment. This has been described elsewhere, notably in the two reports of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues (the Brandt reports) and in statements of African leaders, such as the Lagos Plan of Action. We do not propose to reiterate their conclusions here at great length, though they need to be kept clearly in view.

Most African economies are small in international terms and highly specialized, usually exporting one or two primary commodities – a legacy of colonial times, despite some progress in diversification. Such economies are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of international trade. External shocks – such as large swings in commodity prices, or the big increase in the price of oil – affect not only exporters themselves but have a major impact on the balance of payments, government budgets and private investment.

These economies are subject not only to internationally induced instability. Many commodity exporters have suffered a prolonged deterioration in their terms of trade.

Over the last ten years, African countries have lost as much ‘as 20 per cent of the purchasing power of their exports. Even as the world economy seemed to be turning the corner in 1984, the recovery seemed to pass Africa by, and commodity prices, in dollar terms, fell. One contributory factor has been the desperate need of many developing countries – in Latin America as well as Africa – to improve their external imbalance by exporting larger volumes to the world market, thus depressing prices.

Africa has also been unable to mobilize adequate capital externally to transform its productive potential. As living standards have fallen, so inevitably have domestic savings. As a share of gross domestic product (GDP), savings in low­ income Africa fell from 13.4 per cent in 1970 to 5.9 per cent in 1981. External capital is therefore’ even more urgently required than a decade ago. Yet capital flows in the form of aid have stagnated. Attempts by African countries to borrow their way out of stagnation have led to debt-service payments rising to over 25 per cent in 1983 from 8.8 per cent a decade earlier. As a consequence, African countries have accounted for half of all debt reschedulings experienced in recent years and a good many others are in arrears on debt service. Projections by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggest that even on relatively favourable assumptions about world growth and interest rates, the burden of debt service will get worse. And the generally optimistic World Bank has shown that even modest improvements in debt-servicing ratios will be at the price of another decade of falling per-capita incomes. The combination of smaller loan inflows and higher interest payments means that the net transfer from the rich world to Africa slumped by more than 50 per cent between 1980 and 1983. The World Bank estimates that an additional $6 billion is required per year to keep net flows at the far from generous levels of 1980-82.

This economic crisis has had a direct bearing on the food crisis. Because of the shortage of foreign exchange, factories can no longer operate and supply spare parts needed for farm equipment or consumer goods for peasant farmers to buy. Because of petrol shortages and budget cuts, farm extension workers do not get into the field and there is a deterioration in the quality of transport to and from the countryside. Ports, airports and telephone systems deteriorate below the level reached to handle an emergency. Because of the need, impressed on governments by the IMF, to give overriding priority to short-run financial stabilization, long-term development and reconstruction plans have to be postponed, cut or abandoned; and priority has to be given to those sectors of farming which generate the most foreign exchange, rather than food for local consumption.

The absence of further detailed attention to these issues in the report in no sense implies any lack of recognition of their enormous importance and of the need for a radically improved external environment and greater assistance. We shall, however, concentrate on ways in which international assistance and national policy can be reorientated to restore the primacy of small-scale farming. Moreover, when; we do make criticisms we stress that these must be balanced against the international economic factors. Real incomes are falling in Africa and there is no short term prospect of that changing. In many cases, the majority” of declining government revenues is now inevitably taken up in paying salaries and other recurrent costs; there is virtually nothing left for investment in development of any kind. Without external assistance, African governments do not have the means to bring about a major shift of resources from city to countryside. The resources are just not there and national stability will not allow for further cuts in urban living standards. Therefore, the resources for a new rural initiative must come principally from outside the continent, from the aid donors. The attraction is that the sums of money needed to help the rural sector find its feet are not impossibly large. Combined with firm leadership from African governments, it offers a path back from the development follies of the past to a sustainable small-scale approach that would enjoy much greater support.

What the present famine has done is help create the intellectual climate for such a re-think. A frank and self­ critical appraisal of ‘development’ efforts has already begun. It is widely accepted that wrong paths to growth have been followed. Too often ‘white elephants’ which are inappropriate for Africa’s needs have been put up; what Edgard Pisani, the former EEC commissioner for development, dismissed as cathedrals in the desert. As a reading of the Lagos Plan of Action shows, governments have been as frank as anybody in acknowledging mistakes. In 1984, at least ten African governments announced plans to devolve agricultural responsibilities, particularly for marketing, to the village or farmer associations. At least, sixteen governments have either raised the price of farm products or removed price controls altogether. This is a necessary but modest beginning.

Too many aid donors have slipped into the ‘we know best ‘ approach. For donor governments it may be a relief to escape the seemingly interminable public inquiries that precede so many construction projects back home. In the Third World the opposite prevails. If an aid donor and a government minister reach an understanding on a project, be it a hydro-electric dam that displaces thousands of people or a road that cuts through forest lands, there are few, if any, legal or political constraints. Africa has too frequently been a laboratory for the fancies of foreign development experts.

Intertwined with the crisis of the rural economy in Africa is a crisis of government itself. One reflection of this is the urban bias in policy-making and the absence of rural participation. Governments have been preoccupied with the needs of the new, and economically under-productive, cities. Indeed, catering to the aspirations of the urbanites has sometimes been a prerequisite for political survival.

The price has been paid in the countryside. Other aspects of the difficulties post-colonial governments have had in establishing their authority have also played their part. In five of the worst-affected countries, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Sudan, famine co­ exists beside internal disturbances and armed conflicts directed against the central government. Across Africa, scarce resources have been pulled away from investment in development, in order to give priority to maintaining the authority of central governments. This includes arms spending.

The strain on governments can only grow as the famine­ induced migration gathers pace. Even as the geographical reach of the famine has lessened, it appears to have intensified in the Sahel belt of states across Africa (see map II), and its tentacles still stretch firmly into Sudan and Ethiopia. In these countries, life has become increasingly unsupport­able on the desert frontline. Famine and the encroaching desert have brought about irreversible changes in the demographic map of the continent.

In the second half of the book we turn to how the African economy could be managed in the interests of rural development so as to overcome the gulf between cities and the countryside. We look at the need to restore an agriculture whose income-generating benefits reach the poor­est and which lives within its environmental means. We also propose how international assistance can be remodelled to support these goals.

However, the famine reflects so deep a crisis that it would be unrealistic to believe that even radical policy changes could avert further major food breakdowns in the short-term. Therefore, the mechanisms to avert, or at least contain, famine must be improved. This is the subject of the next two chapters.