Horn of Africa famine sign of system failure

October 15, 2011

More than 13 million people are facing extreme food insecurity in the Horn of Africa in Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

Almost 30,000 children have already died in Somalia in 90 days.

Famines in the region have become common enough for the Western media response to be cliched. Out-of-context images and sound-bites depict hopeless Africans needing Western charity yet again, and references to conflict making the situation worse depict conflict as local failing that Western intervention may be able to remedy.

A sure sign that African food insecurity has reached crisis point is Irish rock star Bono organising his fellow celebrities in “controversial” stunts.

Bono takes the “radical” position of moralistically declaring our charity insufficient, but others have been more self-satisfied. On October 5 in Nairobi, Rajiv Shah, head of the US Agency for International Development, claimed the more than US$600 million spent by his agency had blunted the famine, Associated Press said the next day.

In an October 14 ABC Online article, World Vision Australia's CEO praised foreign minister Kevin Rudd’s October 12 announcement that the Australian government would donate an amount equal to that collected by 16 government-recognised aid organisations.

“The Government’s new initiative to match donations dollar for dollar provides a unique opportunity for Australians to maximise their donations'” he said. “Every dollar they give to help will now go twice as far. Australians are a generous people and this has been proved repeatedly in their giving when disaster strikes.”

Debates over whether the West is sufficiently charitable create the entirely false impression that, through charity and “development aid”, wealth flows from the West to Africa.

In fact, the current famine is the result of Africa’s wealth continuing to flow to the West, as it has done for centuries.

One of the main causes of the famine is climate change. The Horn of Africa has always been drought-prone, but rainfall has steadily declined over the past 30 years.

The region is hardly unique in experiencing the negative consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, but its responsibility for creating them has been negligible.

In 2008, the average Australian was responsible for 269 times the emissions of the average Eritrean. This figure does not account for the even greater disparities in historical emissions.

Like north-east Africa, Australia has been hit by climate change: bushfires, floods and drought. However, a drought in Australia does not cause 30,000 children to die. The countries least able to cope are those with the least historical and current emissions. This is not a coincidence.

Conflict is correctly identified as a major contributor to north-east Africa’s humanitarian crisis. All the countries in the region are the scene of current, or very recent, armed conflict.

However, the humanitarian situation is markedly worse in Somalia, a country torn apart by perpetual civil war and foreign invasion since 1991.

Like most conflicts in Africa, Somalia’s conflicts have been fuelled from outside.

Colonised by Italy and Britain, who deliberately stunted economic and social development, independent Somalia fell under a military regime that acted as proxy, at different times, for both Cold War superpowers. The Somali state was little more than a foreign-equipped army and when the Cold War ended, the US lost interest and this state fell apart.

Then in 1993, Somalia being torn apart by rival warlords became the prototype for US-led post-Cold War military intervention using a “humanitarian” pretext.

US fire power took hundreds of thousands of Somali lives. Local militias united in response.

TV images of the bodies of a shot-down US helicopter gunship crew being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu led to the withdrawal of the 7000-strong US-led force in 1995. But it also cemented Somalia’s place in Western propaganda as an ungovernable country full of dangerous black Muslims.

In 2006, Somalia was almost unified by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. This relatively moderate Islamist movement had widespread popular acceptance, but at the height of the post-9/11 “War on Terror”, it was not the sort of regime that the US would allow to bring peace to Somalia.

In December 2006, at US instigation, Ethiopia invaded.

Ethiopian troops remained until February 2009, when they were replaced by 8000 African Union (AU) “peacekeepers”. Sheikh Ahmed now leads the US-recognised government (which, like all post-1991 US-recognised Somali governments, controls no territory).

Formerly UIC-allied militias now make up the extremely violent Islamist youth movement, al Shabab.

Western media coverage has focused on al Shabab’s violence as an impediment to humanitarian work in the Horn of Africa. However, this ignores the history of Western interference thwarting peace in Somalia.

Western military interventions are used to maintain the economic relationship between Europe and Africa created by centuries of Western slave-trading and colonialism, whereby Western corporations get access to Africa’s resources at bargain prices.

Since the end of formal colonialism, the language of aid and development has been used to mask this process. Through “development loans”, with high interest rates and neoliberal conditions, African nations' dependent relationship on the West is maintained.

Between 1990 and 2003, African countries received $540 billion in loans, paid back $580 billion, but still owed $330 billion, the July 16, 2009, Pambazuka said.

Loans by Western controlled institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are used to blackmail African countries into accepting policies that further this unequal relationship.

Western agriculture is subsidised to the point of making Western imports cheaper in Africa than locally-grown food. Loans are made conditional on African countries sacrificing agricultural land to export-oriented monoculture.

Kenyans struggle to afford imported food that is rising in price for reasons ranging from bad harvests in the Ukraine to hoarding by Western corporate speculators. Most of Kenya’s best agricultural land is devoted to growing fruit, vegetables and flowers for sale in Europe.

The problem of severe hunger in the Horn of Africa is a result of this toxic combination of the effects of Western military intervention, economic exploitation and climate change for which the West bears the most responsibility.

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