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Another famine caused by people, not nature

I have been trying to avoid mentioning our current famine, as I thought I had written all I could about famines in the past. Clearly not, though, judging by the actions and utterances of those who ought to know better.

Seven years ago, I wrote some articles on this page about famines and the right and wrong ways to fight them. Sadly, those articles remain utterly relevant to today’s situation – because nothing has changed in those seven years. So allow me to repeat an essential point about famines.

Famines are not caused by lack of rainfall. Really, they are not. How can they be, when we know of countries that receive very little precipitation but never experience famines? Famines are not caused by lack of food. How can they be, when many countries hardly produce any food – but never experience famines?

I have forgotten most of the economics lectures I attended as a young man, but the ones by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen stayed with me. In modern economies, famines are caused by a lack of ENTITLEMENT to food. Famines are man-made. 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. It may be precipitated by a rainfall failure, but that is only the superficial cause. The underlying cause is the failure to create an ongoing entitlement to food. That is why no minister, MP, councillor, bureaucrat, CEO or manager will ever face famine. Their entitlements are assured, through income.

The best way to do this for more people is to provide people with income streams that are not wholly dependent on the weather. That is where our failure lies: in our people, who persist in dangerously vulnerable activities; and in our leaders, who have singularly failed to date to create alternative, diversified streams of income. NTV recently pointed out that this is a drought of leadership, not just rainfall. You should have nodded vigorously.

As I wrote in 2004: “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.”

So we have another famine in 2011. What should we do? Kenyans are very commendably again digging deep into their pockets to help. A significant sum has been raised by corporate and private do-gooders. But to imagine this alone is enough is to make a catastrophic error, one that will see us back here soon, wailing and donating again.

Use this philanthropic energy to push, finally, for long-term answers to famine. Those answers lie in: education; awareness; rural infrastructure and connectivity; income diversification schemes; irrigation and modern farming. Those projects need collective public and private effort. And they need the very thing that is in shortest supply: leadership.

In a modern economy, a famine is a moral and intellectual disgrace. It is yet another blot on the tattered CVs of our leaders, national and local. It records our failure to modernize our rural economy, prioritize our spending, rationalize our planning. As I write this, we are busy jerking our collective knee again. It’s now time to jerk some collective brain cells into action.

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