Thursday, March 8, 2012

Food Security and the Horn of Africa

The National Defense University (NDU) in Washington hosted a day long conference on 8 March 2012 on the food security crisis in the Horn of Africa. Several hundred persons, including many from the U.S. military, attended. I participated in a panel discussion on "Political and Security Issues in the Horn of Africa."

I made three points in brief opening remarks. First, referring to earlier remarks by Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, President of NDU, that food is a weapon, I suggested that food can be a weapon and on occasion has been a weapon in the Horn of Africa. Normally, however, emergency food aid is not a weapon. On at least three occasions in the Horn, it has been used as a weapon. During the horrible famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, the Derg regime made efforts to prevent emergency food aid from reaching those famine-impacted areas of Ethiopia, especially Tigray, that were in rebellion against the Derg. During efforts in 1992-1993 by the international community to deliver food to Somali famine victims, Somali warlords disrupted the food distribution system for their own gains. Most recently, the al-Shabaab extremist organization in Somalia has prevented a number of international organizations from delivering food aid to Somali famine victims under its control.

Second, I argued that much of the Horn of Africa now has a structural food deficit. Ethiopia even in a normal crop year must import food to feed some three to four million people every year. Ethiopia has had a structural food deficit since the final years of the Haile Selassie government in the early 1970s. To its credit, Ethiopia has developed emergency systems that have prevented famines since the early 1990s although food shortages remain a serious problem. Sudan was once considered to be the potential "breadbasket" of the Horn of Africa. It had excellent agricultural potential. Once Sudan discovered oil, however, it concluded it was a lot easier to export oil than food. Its agricultural sector deteriorated. More recently, it lost control of 75 percent of its oil to South Sudan. It now badly needs to rebuild its agricultural infrastructure just to feed its own people. Somalia has been a failed state since 1991, requiring emergency food assistance every year since then to feed its people. There is no end in sight. Eritrea, Djibouti and even Kenya also experience food shortages. South Sudan may become the next Horn of Africa poster child for famine. The World Food Program estimates that 4.7 million people in South Sudan will be food insecure in 2012 and one million of them will be severely food insecure.

Third, I want to suggest a cautionary note on early predictions about famine and food shortages. They often significantly exaggerate the actual situation and occasionally significantly understate the problem. They are rarely on target. The international relief community and non-government organizations that make these estimates have a vested interest in predicting the worst possible situation in order to raise awareness and attract donor contributions. This is understandable. Last year, some of the most authoritative estimates suggested that up to 750,000 persons could die during the looming famine in Somalia. There were severe food shortages in other parts of the Horn but no famine. While 750,000 and an even higher figure was always a possibility, it was a worst case scenario that was widely used to attract more donations. The 25 February 2012 issue of The Economist reported that at least 80,000 persons died in the famine and 2.3 million continue to need food assistance. This is a huge number and 80,000 deaths too many, but it is not even close to the projected 750,000 figure.

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