Chapter 2: Before Disaster

 ‘People only see what they are prepared to see.’

Emerson, 1839

Famine should not be a surprise. It is the culmination of a series of crises, each of which has set off its own alarm signals. Yet disaster assistance nearly always comes too late. There is still no adequate early warning system of impending disaster.

The circumstances which lead to famine actually build up quite slowly. Unlike an earthquake which strikes suddenly, famine occurs after one, or probably more, years of food supply difficulties. So there are obvious advantages in trying to forecast it, and on the face of it no reasons why this should be a difficult exercise. Yet attempts to do so in Africa have been repeatedly confounded. The best known early warning system is run by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Data is collected about rainfall; if the rain does not come at the right time, or fails altogether it is a signal that a lot of the seed will not germinate. Also, estimates are made of what acreage has been planted and then, at harvest time, further calculations are completed of how much has been grown. So it would seem that FAO should, together with the governments who help it collect this material, be well-placed to sound the alarm if at any stage its monitoring indicates that something is going wrong. The record tells a different story.

The Ethiopian government, after the 1972 to 1974 famine, instituted the most complete early warning system of its kind in Africa. Local officials are supposed to monitor rainfall, crop planting and harvests and then regularly turn in their data to a small unit in the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC). This unit collates the information and provides a series of crop estimates throughout the year as each stage of the planting and harvesting cycle is completed. On the basis of these estimates, the RRC has warned the donors of a prospective food crisis every year for the last eleven years – each year of its existence.

Although it is true that population growth, mis-investment in state farms, soil deterioration and the civil war in the north have made Ethiopia endemically short of food, annual warnings of famine are rather too like the little boy who cries wolf once too often. The warnings were not believed. The system seems to lack credibility with donors.

Institutionally, although held up as a model of its kind, it is unclear whether the small unit responsible for collating the information inside the RRC has had the clout to ensure that the local officials give enough attention to collecting precise data. Additionally, collection of rainfall statistics is only useful if there are sufficient collection stations under disciplined management.

Some of the driest areas of northern Ethiopia are ones which government officials can often not reach, hence further weakening the data collection. The next step, calculating the shortfall between needs and the prospective harvest, is less reliable still. The RRC unit in Addis Ababa attempts to arrive at a calculation of national deficit. But until late 1984, the government and donors were formally operating under the assumption that there were nine million fewer Ethiopians than there are now believed to be. A new census upped the population in 1984 but if the old calculations of harvest size and food requirement had borne any relation to reality, these nine million people would have remained neglected. But once the new census findings were known, the calculation of how many food rations were needed was not suddenly raised. Everybody, government, international agencies and others, accepts the imprecision of the method and guess as best they can what the approximate truth is. Hardly a process to reinforce the confidence of food donors.

One of the weaknesses of the weather and crop yield based system of early warning is that, although information is collected locally, the calculation of shortage is made on a national basis. For some years there have been intensifying shortages, localized famines, in northern Ethiopia. These have, to some extent, been offset by surpluses elsewhere in the country. It is rare for famine to take a whole country in its grip. Yet these crucial regional differences are blunted in the national statistics. An inter-governmental early warning system, which is what the FAO one is, is conditioned by its reliance on national governments for information. Sometimes, such information may have, or be perceived by donors to have, a partial character.

At present in some African countries famine conditions cover much of the country , but this is the exception rather than the rule of famine. More typically famines are highly localized. Famine only spread to the southern part of Ethiopia in 1984. Equally, in Sudan, there has been increasingly serious malnutrition in the west for some years and also patches in the east in the Red Sea Province. But it was the failure of the harvest in the normally- surplus producing regions of central and eastern Sudan that tipped the country as a whole into famine in 1985.

Monitoring food shortage requires a much closer focus on the local anatomy of famine. In Africa, the inefficient road and transport system and weak market mechanisms often mean that if a particular area suffers a deficit in the midst of its neighbours’ surplus, people will go hungry. Without outside intervention food will not move from surplus to deficit areas. But in national calculations of food shortage, the implications of these crucial local differences do not show up. Nor is climate a guide to whether there are social and economic constraints on food moving within a country from the surplus to the deficit regions. The price mechanism (people will be prepared to pay more for food if their locality is short of it) should draw supplies into the deficit area. But will the people who need food still have money to buy it?

Even if they do, the market mechanisms may be too underdeveloped for that demand to make the link with surplus supplies elsewhere. Perhaps the two areas have no tradition of trade between each other. Or alternatively, those with a surplus may view their neighbour’s deficit as a warning of what may come to them the following year and therefore store the food rather than sell it. Perhaps those in the deficit area did, in fact, store food themselves the previous year, so that they can cope to some extent with a harvest failure – in which case, their need in the first year of harvest failure may not be as great as the raw data of crop yield might suggest.

Measuring the weather and crop size will obviously not answer many of these crucial questions. But answers to them are vital in deciding what drought will mean for a particular area. Hence, social scientists have provided an alternative model of famine early warning based on people’s behaviour. If there is panic, it is a sure sign that food is not reaching deficit areas at a price vulnerable people can afford. Such evidence of imminent crisis may not come as early as measuring the rainfall, but it is much surer evidence that local communities have failed to cope with the setback of bad weather, and it is a much better indication that outside help, either from the national or international level, is required.

Such signals of social and economic distress have the same seasonal pattern to them as the weather-based indicators. Food shortage in the countryside is not constant throughout the year but is tied to the farming cycle. In a normal year, the worst months will be those immediately preceding the harvest. Last year’s food stocks will have run down and there may only be just enough food to eke out the weeks until the harvest. At this point the farmer may well be having to buy food. If the harvest then fails, people may be well down the road to acute food shortage. Although a harvest, however poor, will have improved their position from a month earlier, food shortage will soon be much more acute than it was at the same point a year before.

The essential point is that country life is potentially rich with signals of crisis, but these are seasonal. The observer, with an urban experience, has little sensitivity to this time­ dimension of food supply. In the cities, the availability of food is largely governed by arbitrary commercial factors rather than the seasons.

Basing famine forecasting on human rather than crop behaviour is not new. The most famous example is the famine code instituted in India by the British in the nine­teenth century. District officers were expected to be on the lookout for any growth in the crime rate which could be attributed to food shortage, any increase in the number of destitute migrants, or any rise in the number of starvation ­related deaths. Prior to these advanced social signs of impending localized famine, the market price for food already begins to behave erratically. Broadly, grain prices will rise sharply, independent of any normal seasonal fluctuations and livestock prices will plummet as people sell precious animals to buy food grain for their own consumption. If the reason for food shortage is drought, this will give further impetus to the forced sale of livestock at give-away prices.

To the observer in the right place, looking for the right signs, an imminent famine becomes hard to miss. The Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues (ICIHI) has financed research by the London -based Food Emergencies Research Unit (FERU) to carry out field research in various parts of Africa in order to collect basic data and verify the conceptual foundations of such a system. An attempt was then to be made to see whether it is possible to establish a continent-wide network of voluntary groups to monitor such socio-economic signals and warn when shortages are imminent. This project is being supported by ICIHI in the hope that this addition to the existing early warning system would lead to more reliable indicators of impending disasters. The monitoring system would be based on a series of agreed indicators concerning the behaviour of market prices for food at the local level, and signs of panic such as people selling household goods or being forced to migrate. All are signals of a localized food crisis.

In other words, the behaviour of potential famine victims is the least fallible guide to the onset of famine. Food donors would then be presented with early warning data which would accurately pinpoint communities unable to cope. Obviously, it would be a great improvement on the present national estimates with their improbable assumptions about population size, national crop area and likely yields.

Because weather-based systems have such a poor track record, social scientists are inclined to discount altogether weather and crop yields as indicator s. This may be going too far the other way, particularly now that satellites allow much better crop surveys than was previously the case, offering a broad guide to where crop failure is likely. Although they are no substitute for local level socio­ economic research, the searchers on the ground can get a better idea where to look. At present there is a risk that different early warning systems will remain jealously guarded rival preserves of single academic disciplines. It would be much better if the social scientists, the meteorologists and the agronomists joined forces.

However, even a successful partnership of satellite photography and social scientist in situ may not be enough to make donors commit food aid when warned that a famine is just round the corner. Committing emergency aid prior to visible starvation requires more than technocratic judgement; it also needs political courage. Those who have been quick to criticize Western and other governments for not foreseeing the African famine and delivering food in time would have been as angry if food aid had been delivered when it was not needed. Not only would it have been a waste of public funds, but the arrival of large amounts of free food, surplus to the recipient country’s requirements, would have forced local food prices down. This, in turn, could trigger food shortages the following year by discouraging local farmers from growing a surplus. Prices would have become so low due to the glut of food aid on the market that it would no longer be worth the local farmer’s while to grow a surplus for sale. Even with huge surpluses in the North, there are plenty of reasons why cautious officials will resist shipping food.

There is no better spur to tangible action than beaming starving people in the South via television into the living ­ rooms of the North. But it is a sad and belated way of making the point.

It is suggested that the reason there has not been a major famine in India since 1943 is not just because of the improved food production, but also because it has a free press functioning in a democratic framework. If an area within the country starts to slip towards crisis, victims can make their voice heard. Newspapers kick up a fuss, thus stirring the concern of the central authorities. Hence timely action. In Africa, regrettably, there is rarely the same link between countryside and urban politicians. In general, there is a lack of representative structures which allow rural voices to be heard. During the present famine, many of those in other continents who have seen starving people on television have been closer than many in Africa to what is happening.

The world community needs to be sensitized on the food issue. There is enough food in the world to feed everybody and barriers should not be erected to prevent emergency distribution of food when required. Hence the obligation to develop an early warning system which is trusted. If the food is available to prevent famine it should be given in time. The argument about how that food is provided so that it does not exacerbate the problems of local food production is a separate issue that we will deal with later. Here, we wish to stress that society, as a whole must come to accept the concept of an international humanitarian food-flow until countries have secured their own self-sufficiency in food production. Governments in food-deficit countries must overcome their disinclination to ask for outside help. Lives must not be lost because of national pride or a lack of foresight.

The Ethiopian government had certainly been sounding the alarm internationally for over a year before a television team suddenly brought the crisis alive and galvanized international action in October 1984. But the government had not come clean with its own people about the famine. It had not undertaken the belt-tightening measures, such as cutting back on arms purchases or foregoing the expensive celebrations of the revolution, which a government with real accountability to those in the countryside might have been obliged to do. Only a much more unequivocal clearing of the decks on its part to fight famine at the expense of other government priorities might have persuaded sceptical food donors to act sooner.

Although the European Economic Community (EEC) had a major food aid programme in Ethiopia, Western governments for the most part kept their distance. There was little to prompt them to send food to Ethiopia in preference to other hungry African countries, or indeed in preference to keeping it in storage in Europe and Northern America. This was not least because of the Ethiopian dependence on the Soviet Union and its allies for aid.

Overnight, public opinion provided a compelling reason to help Ethiopia. In Sudan, the government for different reasons delayed an international response to the famine. Again, more representative political structures would not have allowed it to do so. It would seem that national ‘pride about throwing itself on the mercy of the international community coupled with concern that panic-talk of shortages would encourage powerful grain merchants to corner supplies, and a failure to appreciate the extent of some of the local shortages led the Sudanese government to hold back from a general appeal for international help. Whatever the justification for this approach, if the mute voice of the famine victims had been heard, the government would have reacted sooner. As it was, response on any scale only took place when famine victims trekked to Omdurman and other towns along the Nile. Effectively they were bringing their case to the government’s own doorstep.

A credible network of voluntary groups might help alert governments in the international community to impending trouble. It would, however, be unrealistic to believe that it would make a big difference without a much clearer inter­national commitment to a human right to food in a world which has a surplus. Regrettably at present, the victims only gain power and the ear of those with food to spare when their plight becomes so acute that through the media or through their appearance on the streets of the capital, they become an issue for those in power. Their disaster is ironically the source of their temporary ascendancy. Pre-empting famine would also mean pre-empting the constellation of forces that girds governments into helping the victims.

Voluntary agencies ‘ importance in famine prevention lies in the confidence they often enjoy at several very different levels. At each, the basis for the trust put in them is their non-governmental character. At the international level their findings about a local situation of food shortage are trusted. They are thought not to have an axe to grind. Similarly at the local level, they may be a more accepted source of intervention and advice for the victims. They are crucial actors in building up the sense of global ‘community’ in dealing with famine and a human right to food.

So is the press. Yet journalists have had immense difficulties getting access to a number of the famine-affected areas. Governments, in general, do not like foreign media . Sometimes they are no more keen on their own national press. There is little tolerance of criticism. Of course, arguments can fairly be made about the imbalance of world news. But the obstacles placed in the way of the media reporting the African famine cannot be attributed to that. Here was the Western media for once pursuing with all its commercial zest an African story.

Once the African famine made the front page and the evening TV news bulletins, attitudes changed . Visas were showered on journalists like confetti, although one or two countries, as much because of transport shortage as any lingering wish to censor, still could not let in the journalists except as a trickle. So Mozambique ‘s famine, for example, continued to be under-reported. But for the most part, Africa briefly acknowledged the power of the media.

If governments and the aid agencies are serious about quick response to future famines, the media must be brought in, and allowed to operate without censorship or restrictions on access. Only in such an environment will outside reporting about Africa improve and, more importantly, only then will the national press in Africa develop, and be able to become the poor man’s advocate.

We have examined the limitations of conventional famine early warning systems, and showed why measuring the rain is not an accurate guide to how many poor people will be unable to buy food. In their place we have proposed a greater emphasis on socio-economic indicators of behaviour as people begin to foresee famine. We have described ICIHI’s current inquiry into whether it would be feasible to establish an Africa-wide network of voluntary agencies to report on these indicators. It is part of our overall emphasis on re-orientating government policy and aid structures so that they hear and see the small farmer. We have also argued that, however good the early warning system, it will require political will on the part of donors and recipients if food is to be shipped before famine reaches the television screens. In this regard we have stressed the need for recognition by society at large that all should have access to food. But averting famine remains a distant goal, therefore in the next chapter we look at the actions of governments and aid agencies after the onset of a disaster which was not prevented.