The politics of famine

The Politics of Famine

By Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator SJ

As the saying goes, when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. It isn’t an accident of nature or a geographical happenstance that hunger, starvation and famine are hitting vulnerable populations in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia with particular ferocity. Millions of people bear the brunt of this crisis, not counting the cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and camels decimated by drought. The condition of children affected must leave the conscience of the global community in tatters. At a time when conventions and protocols on the rights of the child abound, millions continue to succumb to the ravages of famine – dead, stunted or brain-damaged for life.

Common to the plight of our fellow humans in these hunger-stricken countries are three underlying problems, all with major political dimensions. First, there is severe political dysfunctionality compounded by economic and social collapse and varying degrees of violent conflict. This political dysfunctionality creates the perfect storm for famine and food insecurity to thrive. Take, for example, South Sudan, one of the most fertile countries on the globe boasting nine months of abundant rainfall. Over the last four years, a ruinous civil war between an autocratic government and marauding bands of rebels and militias has reduced the country to a nation of refugees and internally displaced persons, stalked by hunger and starvation. The crisis in South Sudan is now largely forgotten by the international community, just like the protracted war of attrition in Yemen, the ongoing civil war in Somalia and the terror-ravaged communities in northeastern Nigeria. The result is the same: millions of hungry and starving women, men, and children.

Food distribution underway in Baringo, Kenya.  (Photo: Jesuit Province of Eastern Africa)

Food distribution underway in Baringo, Kenya.
(Photo: Jesuit Province of Eastern Africa)

A second major problem is global warming. Although farmers and herders in East Africa have decades of experience in negotiating the harsh climate and geographical terrain of the region, nowadays they are unable to cope with changes in the weather patterns. Over the last quarter of a century rains have become infrequent, erratic and unpredictable. Yet the gods are not to blame. The increasing frequency of the drought cycle is primarily a consequence of human-induced climate change. While some political powers bicker about the politics of global warming and indulge in diplomatic posturing to evade and thwart proactive measures, drought upon drought upon drought has left people in the horn of Africa famished and permanently food-insecure. Weak governments can no longer cope. Humanitarian agencies are overwhelmed by an ever-increasing number of hungry people. And children are the worst affected. On top of malnutrition they are afflicted by diseases like measles, cholera and diarrhea.

A third noticeable feature of the present crisis is the scandalous problem of underfunding. Resources for humanitarian and relief efforts pale in comparison to the staggering amounts of money wasted on arms and ammunition, particularly in South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. The crisis of hunger and famine is seriously underfunded. UN agencies, like the World Food Program, and local and international non-governmental organizations struggle to win the support of governments and funding agencies. Perhaps there is donor fatigue. Or we have become desensitized. Whatever the cause of underfunding, the international community bears a vital political responsibility for tackling the root causes of hunger and starvation. This requires a global compact of solidarity in which stronger nations support weaker ones.

In his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (“On social concerns”), St John Paul II wrote that solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (no. 38). At times such as this, solidarity “helps us to see the ‘other’ – whether a person, people or nation … as our ‘neighbour,’ a ‘helper’ (cf. Gen 2:18–20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God” (no. 39).

Confronting the menace of hunger, starvation and famine is a spiritual and moral imperative incumbent on the global community. Food insecurity in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, reflects our collective failure to practise the virtues of the common good, solidarity and compassion. Rains won’t grow livestock or crops overnight. Firm and persevering political action is needed to address structural factors that cause famine and food insecurity in the medium- and long-term, and to get ravaged communities back on their feet.

Whether a person, people or nation, under present circumstances, Jesus’ words in Mark 6:37 apply: “You give them something to eat!”

This article first appeared in the 2017 Fall issue of CJI’s Mission News. Fr Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ is President of the Jesuit Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar.

(Banner photo by Angela Wells/JRSEA: Food distribution for internally displaced people at Doro Refugee Camp in Maban, South Sudan)