Chapter 4: The roots of famine

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to provide subsistence …that premature death must in some shape or another visit the human race.

Thomas Malthus, 1798

Life has always been precarious in Africa. Its sub-Saharan region contains twenty-nine of the world’s thirty-six poorest countries. Since 1982 a succession of poor harvests, first in southern Africa and then a year later in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa as well, has sent a number of countries plunging below a habitual level of widespread hunger into one of mass starvation.

Many are looking to the meteorologists for indications as to when the famine will lift: will it rain throughout the region as it now has in southern Africa? But rain by itself is not enough. By early 1985, twenty African countries were seeking emergency food aid. Over centuries, societies learnt to live within the constraints of their environment. Rain may have always been erratic in Africa and topsoil thin, and in a country like Ethiopia famine is frequent. But famine on anything like the present scale probably never occurred.

Poor people are always worse affected by disasters, be it flood, drought, earthquake, volcano, hurricane, gas leak or whatever. It is their vulnerability which exposes them to the full force of a disaster. The disaster itself may strike all in its path, but those more likely to be huddled unprotected in its way are the poor, because they cannot afford to be anywhere else. People with means live in well-built, well­ located houses and can afford to buy food even if the crops fail.

Famine, a short-term phenomenon, is inescapably linked to persistent long-term poverty. Rich people don’t starve. The idea of famines wiping out whole societies, as though the consequences of bad weather were meted out in equal measure to all, is farfetched and can usually be traced to sensationalist history writing rather than a real record of what happened. Recent exponents of the linkage between poverty and famines have dispelled some of the myths surrounding this historical view of famine as nature’s leveler, striking out indiscriminately at classes and societies that meteorological chance causes it to alight on.

At the height of the present crisis, Africa is still growing the majority of the food it consumes. Even in famines there is always some food. Who has ever seen a starving military officer or merchant, let alone aid worker? It is a question of who has access to that food.

Famines do not occur only when there is less food avail­ able. In Bangladesh in 1974, when a large number of famine deaths occurred, there was in fact more food than there had been a year earlier. However, the experience of shortages and the prospects of further ones persuaded those with food to hoard it until the prices went up. Such an argument might seem academic when there is not enough food to go round, as is the case in Africa at present, but the analysis is vital because its implication is that as agricultural production revives, poor people will not necessarily stop starving.

They may be livestock owners who had to give away their cattle at knockdown prices during the drought to buy grain for their own consumption; or farmers whose crop failed and who therefore do not now have the income to buy food or seed even when it is available again; or urban workers who have lost their jobs in a recession. All these groups can be found amongst famine victims.

It is clear that some governments in Africa have been unable to prevent food speculation. Some of the richest families in the Indian state of Bengal made their fortunes during the famine in 1943. Similar fortunes are currently being made in Africa and there is no doubt that the lasting impact on the African political economy of each cycle of famine is an increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. After the Sahel famine in the 1970s, there was a marked shift of livestock ownership from the small herdsmen to absentee merchants.

So, although this book is about Africa and the famine there, the basic link of disaster and poverty has a much wider application. Rain failures happen everywhere. Even the world’s main grain exporter, the United States, is not immune – a drought in its farming lands is a predictable event every twenty years or so. But American farmers don’t starve, their politicians and bank managers see to that. In fact in the early months of 1985, additional famine relief for Africa was held up in the United States Congress, because politicians hoped to graft on to it credit help for America’s farmers, who were hard-pressed because they have been growing too much rather than too little food.

In Africa population growth is steadily outstripping increases in food production. While population is increasing at about 3.1 per cent a year, food production was, during the five years until the drought, increasing at about 1.6 per cent a year. Malnutrition, which was the regular condition of about eighty million people at the onset of the last major African famine between 1972-74, is now the routine fate of over 100 million. In those countries where the food shortages are now worst, food production per head of population has been falling over the last fourteen years at an average of 2 per cent a year. Figure I illustrates this divergence between the rates of growth in food production and population.


Drought, in terms of the amount of locally grown food available per person, just brought forward a moment which would have been reached anyway in 1988. The trend over the last two decades has been irresistibly downwards. The food deficit, that is the gap between what is grown and what is needed for consumption, is steadily growing, drought or no drought.

The countries where the food shortages have been worst should cause no surprise. They are those countries which had already been marked out in land-use surveys as unable to support their existing population employing their present level of agriculture. Ethiopia’s poverty makes it peculiarly prone to disaster. Taking the new census figures, it seems the average income is only about $110 per annum, the lowest in Africa. Life expectancy is forty-seven years. The literacy rate is only about 45 per cent and a survey some years ago showed that only 6 per cent of the people have access to safe water. Until the famine, Ethiopia was, apart from considerable amounts of food aid, getting very little external development assistance. According to one calculation, Ethiopia was in 1982 receiving only $6 per head in official development assistance compared to about $18 for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole .

Ethiopian food shortages are so chronic that the government has appealed for help every year for the last eleven years. Its history is littered with records of famine, not least because, until the 1974 revolution, its elite city life rested on one of the most exploitative systems of land tenure in Africa.

Its structure always prevented peasants achieving their own food security as many of their counterparts elsewhere in the continent were able to do. Between 1540 and 1800, twenty-three major famines were recorded; the great famine of 1888-92 was in its scale a forebear of what has happened in 1984-5.

But historical comparisons should not hide the truth that modern changes in Africa have sharply increased the degree of vulnerability to famine. On average, more than six times as many people around the world died each year from disasters in the 1970s compared to the 1960s. These figures, compiled in a Swedish Red Cross study, are not statistically very satisfactory but, however incomplete, they show a trend which has continued into the 1980s.

There are proportionately many times more deaths from disasters in low income countries as in middle and high income ones. Africa is reaping the consequences not just of weather, but of poverty.

The amount of poverty in Africa is increasing. The World Bank, using as its standard an annual income of less than $135 (at 1980 values), projected that in Africa the number of people living in poverty is likely to increase by 70 per cent by the end of the century. This compares with its overall sample of forty developing countries where there was some hope that the number of poor would fall by a third. In China, economic reform, support for small-scale farming, aggressive wealth-redistribution policies, and forceful family planning, mean that this vast country is likely to have achieved a decline of 80-90 per cent in the number of its poor by the year 2000.

In a report on the 1973-74 famine, the present Ethiopian government concluded that, ‘the primary source of the famine was not a drought of unprecedented severity but a combination of long-continued bad land use and steadily increased human and stock populations over decades, rendering a greater number of people and their animals vulnerable when drought struck.’ Not enough has changed since then.

The African agricultural record as a whole compares unfavourably with that of others. China, for example, was by 1980 – 82 producing 124 per cent more food per head than it was eleven years earlier, whereas Ethiopia was producing less than 80 per cent, Mali 83 per cent, Tanzania 88 per cent, Somalia 60 per cent and Zimbabwe 87 per cent. There are exceptions. For example Burundi, Rwanda and Malawi, all of which are small countries with higher population concentrations, have, unlike many of their vast underpopulated neighbours, managed to keep food production just about abreast of population growth. Yet Africa has the land to feed a much larger population than it presently has.

Historically, rural impoverishment has been one spur to the creation of a new industrial proletariat. But in African cities, there are not enough jobs. There are alarming indications that Africa’s economic transition may be longer, less certain and, in its present form, abortive. In such circumstances, the disaster syndrome, in the form of drought and poverty leading to uncontainable famine, will recur frequently.

In 1980, less than 20 per cent of the population in the low­ income group of African countries was urban. Yet that town population is expected to increase proportionately more rapidly than elsewhere in the world in the next fifteen years – at a rate of 6 per cent a year. In the richer sub-Saharan African countries already a much higher proportion of the population is made up of town-dwellers. It is a potential demographic snare for the region. Certainly, people will not be escaping disaster by moving from the famine -prone countryside to the towns. They will be taking their vulnerability with them. Without a secure farming base and with urban activities, in many cases, getting off to a spluttering start, the amount of deprivation in both town and countryside could increase markedly. The World Bank now believes that the sub-Saharan population of 385 million in 1980 will have at least doubled by 2005. Given the economic prospects of these countries this trend will add to the pool of the poor and disaster-prone unless there is radical change in these countries’ plans for economic growth. The differences between economic strength and population growth are starkly illustrated in maps III and IV.

Africa must expect – even if it takes major steps now topush family planning and other steps to manage the – demographic explosion – that its population growth will outstrip the capacity of its economies to create jobs or of its governments to care for the extra population well into the next century. The present growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa is 3.1 per cent (4 per cent in places).

Of Ethiopia’s current population of 42 million, 7.9 million cannot feed themselves this year, according to the UN, and depend on international generosity. Population special­ists claim the country’s population could increase as much as seven times before it stabilizes. At which point the population of this soil-eroded country would be more than that of the United States today. How many will then be starving? The uncomfortable fact is that countries with stable populations, the industrialized societies, are increasingly having to help feed many of those with fast­ growing populations, particularly in Africa.

Nigeria’s working-age population will have doubled by the end of the century. Government resources will have difficulty keeping pace. In Malawi, assuming teachers’ salaries and other costs do not increase in real terms, the budget for primary education will still have to double every fifteen years. African education is already sparse and under-financed. In 1978 it took 16 per cent of national budgets and only reached two-thirds of children of primary school age.

An initiative to bring population growth into better balance with economic opportunity must begin from an understanding of social pressures for population growth in Africa. Children still represent extra hands for the fields, security for old age, a symbol of potency and, in some societies, a link for the spirit of parents, when they die, with life. Contraceptive methods are not widely accepted.

In the eighteenth century, 20 per cent of the world’s population lived in Africa. Even with the present high rates of growth it is likely to be less than 13 per cent in the year 2000.

Another factor is the problem of infertility in central Africa. Whereas in developing countries as a whole only, 2-3 per cent of women past childbearing age are childless, surveys in the 1950s and 1960s in eighteen African countries showed that 12 per cent of older women had had no children. The highest such rates were in the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Zaire, Congo and Gabon. In parts of Zaire the rate was as high as 65 per cent. A major reason is the prevalence of untreated sexually transmitted diseases.

So for many reasons, pressing the case for family planning is not easy – the social climate favours a baby boom. Such pressures operate in a context where the real constraints on economic growth often appear to be the emptiness of the land rather than its over-population. To many, it appears that there is plenty of under-used land. It just happens to be where people are not. Not that the availability of spare land in itself is an answer to a population explosion. Also, markets are often too far away and customers too scarce to provide much incentive to the rural entrepreneur. And the population is too scattered for innovation or co-operation to catch on. In fact, Africans are alternatively crowded on to overused lands and in some areas spread too thin.

The population issue is crucial to this report, not just because it is a time-bomb that threatens all progress in Africa, but also because it is one that is amenable to outside assistance. African leaders are, as a statement they made at Arusha, Tanzania, in 1984 indicated, beginning to recognize the need for establishing a population policy. It does not need much power of foresight to recognize that the cycle of falling incomes and rising absolute poverty will not be broken unless the rate of population growth is checked.

Outside assistance can help determined African leadership by providing funds for census taking (the result of which can raise the problem on the national agenda), for family planning clinics and for the other inputs which will bring viable strategies to bear at the community level. Each society will find its own most acceptable way s of restraining family size, perhaps marrying later, or increasing the intervals between children, or where there is polygamy, having fewer wives. But modem methods of contraception avail­able free, or at subsidised prices, and modem mother and child health care clinics to increase the survival chances of children and therefore reduce the incentives for having extra ones, will be vital. The experience in Latin America and Asia shows outsiders cannot impose solutions. To attempt to influence family relations is counterproductive. But community leaders can set the tone and establish the goals, and foreign aid can support and encourage these initiatives where local resources are scarce: Wherever there is a sign of more favourable official or community attitudes to family planning in Africa, aid agencies would do well to nurture and back them. It is an essential gamble on Africa’s future.

So the prospects for Africa’s poor of avoiding future famines must be weighed against a background of inadequate food production, increasing population, and a movement of people to the towns. It is the increasing incidence of poverty in Africa which separates it from other parts of the developing world and raises the real prospect of further famines. The world has enough to eat. The difficulty is that nations and individuals often lack the means to purchase it. The World Bank’s World Development Report for 1984 supports this view: ‘…the main issue is not the worldwide availability of food, but the capacity of nations, groups within nations, and individuals to obtain enough food for a healthy diet’.

Africa, and Africans, are at the back of the line. In the next chapter we look at how the environment, on which African rural life depends, is in crisis. Its deterioration deepens the level of poverty