Anybody who recalls the terrible images of starving children that were shown on television during the famine that struck Ethiopia in the mid-1980s might be forgiven for feeling despair at the current stream of bad news flowing out of the Horn of Africa.
That feeling will probably only be heightened by the realization that the current drought in the region is more severe and more widespread than the one that appalled us in the ’80s. Indeed, it’s the worst drought in the area in 60 years and more than 12.4 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.
Given this sort of challenge, it’s easy to throw up one’s hands in horror and give up. After all, what have all the billions of dollars worth of aid poured into Africa in recent decades realistically achieved? Aren’t things as bad as ever?
The answer is an emphatic, “No.” Ironically, the current crisis actually demonstrates this. Even though this drought is more severe than the one that struck Ethiopia more than 25 years ago, the depth of suffering and the number of deaths will almost certainly be much less than the estimated 1 million who died back then.
People from Lopeduru village in Kenya's drought-stricken Turkana district gather at a World Vision facilitated food distribution. ©2011 Abby Metty/World Vision
Why is this? Well for starters, we have got much better at predicting where and when famines are going to occur. In response to the previous Ethiopian famine, the United States Agency for International Development began funding the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which uses satellites to analyze agricultural production in famine-prone regions. This data is backed up with on-the-ground monitoring that looks closely at food prices in local markets. Alarm bells ring as soon as food prices begin to rise. Meanwhile, the collection of such data is greatly facilitated by the surprisingly good cell-phone coverage that now exists in much of Africa—technology that was unknown in the ’80s.
Remember the story of Joseph in the Bible? Once Joseph had correctly interpreted Pharaoh’s dream indicating seven years of famine in Egypt, he was able to propose a plan to successfully withstand the calamity. Similarly, with better information, humanitarian organizations like World Vision can take more effective preventative measures against famine than ever before.
One example is establishing cereal banks in famine-prone villages. These store surplus grain immediately after harvests so it’s available during lean times. And even when hunger does occur, we have got much better at treating acutely-malnourished children. One of the most fantastic products that has emerged in recent years is Plumpy’nut—a peanut-based therapeutic food. I’ve personally seen children—little more than skeletons at death’s door—return to good health in weeks.
In drought-stricken Kenya, malnourished two-year-old Napus eats Plumpy'nut. ©2011 Lucy Murunga/World Vision
Moreover, we are getting far better at preventing these kinds of extreme situations in the first place. World Vision has had great success with the introduction of more drought-resistant crops, and more advanced irrigation techniques. Yes, things are very bad right now, but then this is an exceptionally dry year. In general, we are steadily increasing the capacity of vulnerable communities to cope with these kinds of climatic shocks. These are significant signals of victory in the war on hunger.
Of course, the best tools in the world have limited use if you are working in an environment where the government has repeatedly proven itself unwilling or incapable of caring for its own people. There is a saying that famines don’t happen in democracies. One of the reasons the earlier Ethiopian famine was so bad in the ’80s was the country had an autocratic government who redirected aid toward its armed forces. In contrast today, governments in Ethiopia and Kenya are doing their best to facilitate relief operations.
The exception, of course, is the Somalian government, which has consistently placed its perceived needs for military strength and internal "security" ahead of the livelihood and survival needs of its own population. It’s no accident that the bulk of the pain in the current crisis is being experienced by Somali children. This should not cause us to despair, but instead persuade us to promote good governance everywhere.
It’s been said that Mother Nature causes drought, but man causes famine. I believe that’s true, and it also suggests that taking the right kind of steps can prevent famine. The immediate crisis in the Horn of Africa should not provoke us to give up, but rather to build upon and keep up the good work that is already being done.
David Scheiman leads a team of World Vision specialists who are working closely with their African colleagues to design and monitor the effectiveness of our programs throughout Africa. He has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Alabama, and a master’s degree in business administration from Eastern University. He has served World Vision for 16 years and lived in Africa for seven years.
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