Saturday, August 20, 2011

How can the world not prevent a famine?

There was a time when scholars studied things that were truly close to their hearts. So Amartya Sen studied the 1943 famine in Bengal, India. Jeffrey Sachs summarizes what he found here. Sen found that the real reason of the famine was not a dramatic drop in food supplies, i.e. a drought, but an increase in demand created by an urban economic boom. Rural wages did not keep up with the increasing prices, so people simply could not afford food. At the time, the British rulers in colonial India did not have enough of an incentive to help the poor, so Sen theorized that a democratically elected government would have done a much better job.

The current famine in the Horn of Africa also appears to stem from man-made reasons and not just droughts. A World Bank report on food prices found that food prices have increased by a third on average (and much more for corn, wheat and sugar) since last year around this time. The Guardian quotes the report: "While the emergency in the Horn of Africa was triggered by prolonged droughts, especially in areas struggling with conflict and internal displacement such as Somalia, food prices that are near the record high levels seen in 2008 also contributed to the situation."

And the reason for the increasing prices? Poor harvests for one thing, but the diversion of farming to biofuel production in the US is also causing a decline in food supplies across the world. World Bank's chief economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, says that prices in the region are even higher than world average because of a small number of farmers controlling the market.

The political situation in Somalia is also apparently blocking humanitarian aid, especially in the southern regions controlled by the group al Shabaab. The regions controlled by the militia are claimed to be suffering from the worst of the crisis, but the crisis is not limited to these regions, and al Shabaab militants are not the only ones to blame.

The West should probably look in the mirror before claiming that Africans are the only ones responsible for their crisis. If the militia in Somalia are so bad as to "divert rivers" to benefit their cronies and ban vaccines, then why intervene in Libya and not in Somalia? And why distort the world food prices by investing so much agricultural land in biofuels, whose value is questionable at best? Are you any more advanced than the British rulers of colonial India?

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