A quarter-century ago, the Horn of Africa was hit by a famine that killed somewhere between 400,000 and 1 million people and secured the region the unfair reputation as a place of hunger and misery. When famine hit the Horn again this year, analysts and journalists asked the not unreasonable question – will this one be as bad as the 1984-85 famine? For several reasons, this famine could be much worse than that one.
The 1984-85 famine which affected Ethiopia most, but also affected Eritrea (which was then part of Ethiopia) and Sudan, was largely an agricultural famine. This is not to say that it was entirely caused by drought, rather that those who were worst affected were farmers. Struck by three failed rainy seasons and a civil war that placed a stranglehold on the highland countryside in Ethiopia, farmers were neither able to produce the food they needed, nor able to buy it from local markets since traders’ access to markets was curtailed by travel restrictions, the direct targeting of market towns by government forces, and lack of food to buy from larger wholesale markets. As many as 600,000 people were displaced from their homes to areas inside Ethiopia, and another 600,000 sought refuge and assistance in camps in Sudan. Assistance was complicated by aid agencies having to negotiate access with the Ethiopian government. There were then, as there are now, concerns that famine relief might fall into the ‘wrong hands’ or be used to perpetuate the conflict.
But there are important differences between the famine of 1984-85 and that of 2011-12 (for the one we are experiencing now will certainly continue at least into the beginning of next year). The most significant of these differences is that whereas the former was an agricultural famine, this is largely a pastoral and agropastoral famine. While it may seem crass to say so, once people’s immediate food needs are met, the rehabilitation of agricultural households is easier than it is with households that rely substantially on pastoralism. This is where the current famine is different and potentially more dangerous than the earlier one. To start farming again once the drought has passed, people need animals or tractors to plough with (in the highlands virtually all ploughing is done with oxen), seeds, and tools. (They also need land, but all land is nationalized in Ethiopia so people do not lose it by selling it.) These inputs can be provided relatively easily if government or donors are willing.
In pastoral areas, rehabilitation of people affected by famine is more complicated. Many people who lose their herds are never able to return to pastoralism because they cannot get the five animals that they need to start to raise a viable herd again. The herd is the bank account of the pastoralist, and once the animals have died or been sold for rock-bottom prices, there are no savings to restart their pastoral livelihoods. No sooner do they start to build up herds than another food shortage starts and they are forced to sell them to buy food. People thus remain camped around cities and towns for years without access to an adequate income. Their vulnerability to continued food insecurity worsens.
In Somalia and pastoral parts of Ethiopia today, those who are pouring into camps in Dadaab, Dolo Ado and Mogadishu have lost the animals they once had. Many have also lost family members. The life-saving operation that is in place now is fraught with difficulties of trying to negotiate access, in Somalia with both the al-Shabaab insurgents and the Transitional Federal Government (both of whom have reportedly tried to block aid deliveries or prevent people from crossing from one side’s area to the other’s to access relief), and in Ethiopia where there has been a sporadic counterinsurgency for the past two decades. In both cases conflict actors are interested in using famine relief for political ends, to win hearts and minds to their own side. This aspect of the famine is receiving the lion’s share of the media coverage.
But an equally vexing question is: How can rehabilitation be made meaningful in pastoral areas, where the environment dictates that pastoralists must live in dispersed arrangements, where roads are few and far between, and where herds have been decimated and families rendered chronically vulnerable to repeated famine? Local governance in pastoral areas throughout the Horn is weak, as a result of conflict but also neglect. Even while the effort is – and should be – on saving lives in the short term, governments and aid agencies must think now about the difficult question of how meaningful recovery can be promoted. This has not been tried before with any seriousness or success, but it cannot be overlooked again.
Contributed by Dr. Laura Hammond, Senior Lecturer, Department of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)