Introduction and Editorial Note

The root causes of the tragic situation now prevailing in many parts of Africa are multiple and complex. Simplification can be hazardous. To take sides in the debate on whether famine is a natural or a man-made disaster is unnecessary as well as undesirable. Of course, both elements are inextricably present. The question mark in the title of this book is, therefore, of particular significance. We believe that if humanitarianism were to become a factor to reckon with in international relations, just as economic, political and security considerations are, this planet would be a better place to live in. The Independent Commission, which we have the honour to co-chair, was established because of the need to strengthen the human dimension in the global policy-making process. Our effort is directed to a hard-nosed review of the human condition. We plead for a voice, a decisive voice, for the mute multitudes – those hundreds of millions in all parts of the world who are destitute, vulnerable, unprotected.

Because a Commission dealing with humanitarian issues can only be concerned with what is essentially human, its research, analyses and deliberations must, of necessity, carry a clear emphasis, even at the expense of seeming to neglect other disciplines or aspects. Consequently, when in our plenary meetings we discussed the bleak scenario unfolding in Africa, we dealt more with the human tragedy than the global economic and political issues which con­tribute to it. We are aware that world recession, depressed commodity prices, problems of national debts and interest rates, unfavourable terms of trade and the high cost of energy are all factors directly relevant to the African situation and the acute food shortages leading to famine. Our research and reflection have, however, revolved around the human factor; mainly the rural poor who form the important but relatively neglected majority of African populations.

This book, which is based principally on the research and deliberations of· the Commission, carries the same emphasis. Its purpose is to stress the humanitarian dimension in the current public debate and to facilitate further discussion by those concerned, including members of the Commission the themselves.

It is our considered opinion that what is happening in Africa today can very well happen in other parts of the globe tomorrow. As forests retreat and deserts advance, as threats to essential life-support systems increase and ecological fragility grows, so will the vulnerability of the human race. If man continues in the profligate use of resources and to struggle against nature instead of co-operating with it to improve the quality of life, no continent may be spared the kind of problems now facing Africa, even though they may vary in scope and scale from region to region.

In any crisis of this kind, the highest price is always paid by the poorest. It is incumbent upon our common humanity to make their concerns our own and to help them as best we can. The privileged few and the very few need to be reminded that the poor and the very poor have legitimate aspirations to a better life on earth.

This book attempts a mixture of diagnosis and prescription. It must be recognized though that there are no miraculous solutions and no shortcuts to the resolution of long-term problems. However, such a crisis is a time of opportunity as well as danger.

The situation in Africa is a challenge to man’s ingenuity and instinct to survive. It is also a call on human compassion. The destitute have a right to food which must not be denied by policy makers in the name of so-called economic realism. Policies devoid of humanitarian concerns lead not only to civil disturbances in urban areas but also, and above all, death and desolation in the countryside. They bring in their wake massive migrations of populations. We believe that, in terms of humanitarian assistance, what is perceived today as a moral imperative may tomorrow become a political necessity.

Solutions cannot be found just in offices and laboratories. They must be arrived at through a constant dialogue and interaction between those who are too often considered as objects of development and those who are in charge of development. The latter need not only humanitarian commitment and political will but also humility in dealing with complexity: our humanitarian plea is also a plea to recognize people’s creativity. Illiteracy does not mean ignorance any more than knowledge means wisdom.

Innovative technical solutions appropriate to local or national circumstances require risk capital which present financial and credi.t systems hesitate to provide. Both relief aid and the credit systems should be geared to the needs and the wishes of farmers and herders in Africa. Donor and recipient governments must trust their capacity and help them help themselves on the difficult path to self­ sufficiency.

The purpose of this book is not to apportion blame but to suggest alternative perceptions and solutions. It seeks to sow some ‘seeds of hope’ so that the harvest may benefit not only those struck by famine but also all those who are struggling to ensure for themselves and their children a life of self-reliance and dignity.

We feel that donors as well as recipients need to review their priorities as well as policies and practices governing aid to the rural poor. This goes also for the international financial systems including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We need hardly emphasize that the real answer to Africa’s problem is long-term economic and social development enabling it to become self-sufficient. However, looking into those aspects as thoroughly as they deserve to be examined is beyond the scope of this book. We are certain, though, that Africa needs in the years to come, more than ever before, a massive aid input from external sources, essentially to small farmers. We urge donors to provide it. The more it is timely and appropriate, the greatr its impact.

Much is made of the role of media and particularly television in sensitizing public opinion to contemporary problems. However, all it requires is to press a button to move our attention from the horror of dying millions to the antic story of a prosperous ‘Dynasty’ whose main problem is its affluence. The paradox of our time is: if we can get to the moon and try to conquer space, can we allow millions of our fellow human beings to perish just because food, which is abundantly available elsewhere, could not be got to them in time?

Seldom  before in human history has the need for a strategy to survive been so great; or man’s ability to formulate one put so acutely to the test. Compassion and understanding and all those human ties which bind mankind together must rise to the challenge posed by Africa. This book is not a cry of anguish; it is a message of hope as well as an appeal for greater help to our fellow human beings in distress. Armed with faith in our common destiny we cannot, shall not, fail them.


Hassan bin Talal

Sadruddin Aga Khan


Editorial note 

This report is a part of the on-going process of research and reflection by the Independent Commission on Inter­national Humanitarian Issues relating to the tragic situation prevailing in many parts of Africa due to wide­spread famine.

It is a modest attempt to elaborate on the Commission’s humanitarian message in a way which would· allow it to be widely shared. A special effort was made to avoid making the report cumbersome reading. Hence, the absence of footnotes and detailed technical explanations. It is presented to the general public in the hope that it will increase awareness of the problems facing Africa in the context of famine and facilitate further study and analysis of the situation. Above all, it is intended to encourage the search for solutions as well as a greater effort by donors and recipients of humanitarian aid.

The report is based principally on deliberations of the Commission and the research done for it. It takes up the views expressed in the communiques issued at the end of the two Plenary Meetings of the Commission in 1984, held in Tunisia and the Netherlands. The texts of these statements are included as an appendix to this book.

Research on specific aspects that this report deals with, such as systems of famine prediction, desertification, deforestation, etc., was carried out for the Independent Commission by G. Campbell; P. Cutler, C. Hogg, J Rivers, and F. D’Souza; B. Clark and L. Timberlake; Burn, R. van der Giesen and D. Poore. Special input on various aspects of the report was brought by an expert   group meeting,   which was held at Nyon, Switzerland, in March 1985, attended-notably by Bemus, 0. Bremaud, M. Didier-Laurent, J. Derclayes, L. Filippi-Wilhelm, D. Kintz, E. Kane, and F. Vincent. It was preceded and followed by an extensive internal review of the text by the Secretariat of the Commission to which Pierre Spitz and Pablo Bifani in particular contributed. At the end of the process of technical review a group of the members of the Independent Commission met in Geneva in the framework of its Working Group on Disasters, to finalize comments on the draft. In addition, written comments on the draft were received from a number of the Commission members as well as experts. These helped improve the text in style and substance.

Special thanks are due to Mark Malloch Brown whose enthusiasm and ability contributed so much to the preparation of the book. The technical preparation of the report was greatly facilitated by the dedicated work of B. Balmer, P. Bond, J. Mico, M. de Sousa, A. Toh and D. Topali. The maps and diagrams were drawn by R. Natkiel and his associates. Last, but not least, we wish to express our appreciation to David Kewley and his colleagues at Pan Books for their valuable support in the publication of this report. Although a bibliography is not provided, the report’s debt to writers such as Robert Chambers and Amartya Sen, the publications of the United Nations System including the World Bank, as well as many others will be apparent to those who are familiar with the literature.

Any income from sales of this book will be devoted entirely to research on humanitarian issues.

Henrik Beer
ICIHI Working Group on Disasters

Zia Rizvi
Secretary General ICIHI

Geneva, April 1985