Despite countless millions of dollars in foreign aid spent over the last decades, the Horn of Africa’s ever growing population is again experiencing a massive food shortage.
Ethiopia, for example, despite its history of drought, famine, disease and war, has seen its population surge from 31 million in 1973 to more than 80 million today, according to the World Bank.
“Poverty breeds population growth,” says Adam Rogers at the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Drought is the immediate cause of the latest crisis, destroying farms and pushing food prices sky-high. But aid workers comment that dry-spells in the West do not lead to dire humanitarian catastrophes.
Yet in Somalia and Ethiopia droughts are death sentences, time and again, in part as not enough is done to increase food supplies and economic prospects.
“Many aid organisations are there for four decades, doing the same work for 40 years. They can’t claim to be very useful,” says Linda Polman, who wrote the book War Games, The Story of Aid and War in Modern Times.
Polman, a Dutch journalist, says aid often goes only towards “keeping people alive.” UN officials agree that climate change alone cannot account for the severity of the ongoing crisis, sending over 12 million people to the brink of hunger.
“We need to put more into linking humanitarian aid with recovery and development. Not only us at the UN, but the whole aid community,” admits Hafedh Chekir with the UN’s Population Fund.
Chekir says that emergency relief is often not backed by long-term projects to solve the underlying problems. In regions hit hardest by the current food shortage, many girls marry far too young and do not use family planning, he notes. The large generations born lack good quality education and work.
Poor development means farms are not producing enough food. All over the Horn of Africa, the short-sightedness leads to dire consequences, which in turn mandate more emergency aid, in a vicious cycle.
“But you can’t say let more kids die until we have development,” UNDP’s Rogers says, arguing against cutting life-saving relief. But failing governments means citizens suffer.
“The worst case is in Somalia,” says Luca Alinovi, the head of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) mission to the country, which has been embroiled in civil war for 20 years. The lack of a central Somali government means there is only minor investment in farming. Elsewhere in the region, the food shortages also could have been averted.
“The places suffering most in each of these countries are places with the least agricultural investment,” Alinovi said. Ethiopia is relatively better off because it invested in food and water supplies, learning from its woeful past, while rural women are using more family planning.
“In Kenya the crisis is man-made, to a large extent,” says Alun McDonald, at aid agency Oxfam. “The worst affected areas are ones that have been chronically neglected.”
As populations grow, countries must either produce or import more food — but the FAO’s Alinovi warns against relying solely on foreign aid or purchases.
Aid budgets, meanwhile, are regularly being reviewed in Western capitals coping with economic downturns. Handouts from abroad also hurt the domestic markets.
A vicious circle can be made positive, if developing countries and donors begin to invest in strengthening state institutions, and not slapping band aids on emergencies.
By Shabtai Gold