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This famine is a failure of men, not an act of God

Jul 18, 2004 Leadership, Sunday Nation

So it’s official: we are facing famine in Kenya. The first acknowledgement of this was made when, during a state luncheon for ministers and assistant ministers, the President asked other countries to send us “maize and beans”. I was not, of course, present at the luncheon, but I am willing to bet those present ate something more than just maize and beans themselves.

If all ministers and assistant ministers were present that day, it is another safe bet to say that in the car park of State House were gleaming vehicles bought for at least Shs 500 million. That sum of money, incidentally, could buy 4 million Kenyans a meal of maize and beans every day for a month. That is precisely the number of people the government says could be affected by this famine. The irony is apparently lost on our leaders.

Is this a puerile point I am making? Not really. Why are we facing famine? Officially, because of drought. The rains have failed in various parts of the country. It is an act of God. Beyond our control. Just one of those things.

I beg to differ. If there’s one thing I remember from my undergraduate days, it is what I was taught by Professor Amartya Sen, now a Nobel laureate in economics: that famines are man-made. That no well-functioning democratic country has ever faced famine. That it is the failures of men that make famines, not the heartlessness of God. Hunger and deprivation are not immutable.

A famine is a transient event, a sudden eruption of deprivation for a considerable section of the population. A famine is not just an imbalance between food and population – it is a failure in the economic entitlement of certain people to acquire food. People starve when they cannot, for some reason, exercise this entitlement.

Modern economies are a complex web of interdependencies. Most people in the world do not directly produce their own food – they earn money from employment, business or farming with which to buy food. For this system to function, a large number of economic and social institutions need to be working well: commercial markets, political parties, NGOs, news media – not to mention a government implementing sensible policy.

It is the weakness of our institutions and our economic policy that is at the heart of the matter. We are facing famine today because we consistently prioritise the wrong things, and because we are unable to run a nationally effective government without drowning ourselves in the din of incessant wrangling.

A fall in the supply of rain or food is not, in itself, a reason to have a famine. Food can be imported. A drastic fall in the income of key sections of the population is the true underlying factor. Those who grow cash crops are faced with failed harvests. Those who depend on livestock are faced with falling prices for their impoverished animals. Those who provide basic services in drought-stricken areas (such as barbers, tailors, carpenters) are faced with a sudden collapse in the demand for their offerings. All are faced with the spiralling costs of basic foodstuffs.

The knee-jerk reaction (one that we excel in) is to organise food harambees and plead with our foreign friends to send food. That is fine in order to give immediate respite to those who are actually starving today. But for those facing starvation in coming months, a more intelligent response is needed. This involves the restoration of purchasing power to the affected population. Richer countries have anti-poverty programmes and unemployment insurance; poorer countries have to think harder. Sensible developing countries provide emergency public employment at times of natural disasters to restore economic entitlement.

This method has proved very effective. In 1973, for example, the Indian state of Maharashtra compensated for the loss of employment caused by a crippling drought by creating 5 million temporary jobs. The results were dramatic: there was no significant rise in under-nourishment or mortality – even though food production fell by over 70 per cent in parts of the state. India used to suffer from periodic famines under British rule – but has not had a single one since it gained independence, mainly through the method of countervailing (and temporary) employment creation. African countries like Botswana and Zimbabwe have also successfully gone down this route when facing drought.

Recreating income through employment in specifically designed public projects is sensible because it gives people the power to buy their own food and reinvigorates the market. It provides a means for sharing the available supply, as well as expanding it. It reduces the tendency to hoard food. It allows people to stay in their own homes and not embark on potentially catastrophic migrations. And it is a solution that gives a role to both the state (in creating employment) and to private markets and the normal processes of commerce.

So instead of sitting in Nairobi sending panic messages to the outside world, the government would be better advised to be on the ground in the drought-stricken areas designing work programmes and paying for them. All the basic roads, dams, boreholes and clinics that those areas lack could be built now, at a basic wage cost that allows people to earn enough to survive. After the crisis abates, people can revert to their normal activities.

If this does not happen, let it never be said that it is because we lack the resources. If we accept the government estimates that up to 10 per cent of the population faces famine, then in normal circumstances these people, who are likely to be the poorest in the economy, would not command more than 2 or 3 per cent of GNP. Even if we had to recreate their entire share of income, it could be done. Two things are needed: one, the will to divert resources in their direction and away from frivolous items such as ministers’ cars and offices; and secondly, the ability to engage in a comprehensive and intelligent disaster management effort.

As things stand, we lack both. The real tragedy of famines is that instead of a 3 per cent fall in income being spread over the entire population, it is concentrated on the weakest sections. The devil, as ever, takes the hindmost. Instead of every Kenyan losing just one meal per week, the economically most fragile will face outright starvation.

Meanwhile, the government spends its time arguing with diplomats, fighting court cases, attending workshops, holding inquiries and fuelling its fleet of vehicles. But that’s OK, because no minister, MP, mayor, police chief, bureaucrat or manager ever died in a famine. That is the fate of an altogether different class of people. If government is about anything in a developing nation, it should be about thinking creatively about bringing these people into the economic mainstream. They are confined to the margins of our world, where the course of their lives can be changed by a cloudburst. It need not be that way.

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