More on Famine

11 Aug

I’ve been working on a blog post for about a week now on my opinion of TOMS shoes (it’s not entirely positive). But, as I read through news article after news article, and blog post after blog post, on the famine in Somalia, airing my concerns over a shoe company just seems irrelevant. I’ll finish it and post it eventually, but right now the very real risk that 11.5 million people in East Africa will die of starvation, deserves all the attention we can muster and more.

But this is not a post that will tell you that if you act now, you can save lives in Somalia. It is not a post that will tell you that we have a solution for widespread starvation, or even the capacity to limit this tragedy. It is a post written with a strong aversion to oversell and dishonesty about emergency and development aid and what we can accomplish with it. Because first of all, by “we” I assume I am talking to people very much like me: Western, middle-class, educated, busy but not unmoved by the images of this famine that are showing up in newspapers and online. But let’s broaden  “we”. Let’s broaden it to include our policy-makers, both domestic and international, African governments, the UN, other donor governments. Basically, anyone that might actually have power to prevent or respond to a famine. Because when these actors are included, it becomes true that “we” have the technical capacity to avoid widespread famine. But “we” don’t have the political capacity. This famine is no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to this region. It was predicted nine months ago.

It is, like most famines, a human disaster, not a natural disaster. The distinction is fundamental not only to how “we” respond, but also to who we blame.  And this is where I would like to be very clear: some of us in this collective “we” are to blame, and let’s be careful who we blame. Because it is not just one party of the collective “we” that is to blame, but many parts.

I think, when the “we” that is limited to people like me, sees people dying in other countries, especially in Africa, for reasons that we poorly understand, we assume that there is something we can do to make it right. We see that something is lacking, food and water for instance, or something that is happening, mineral mining in the DRC for instance, and blame ourselves for not doing something. I would like to say this delicately, because I believe the desire to help and to end suffering is fundamentally good, and should be encouraged and pursued, but there is an amount of arrogance in our response. By assuming that we, by donating money or signing a petition and trying hard enough, could end the suffering of millions of people far from us, we turn a story that is about regional politics and war, lack of political will to consistently invest in viable agriculture in African drylands, a fundamentally broken food chain to and from Somalia, the politicization of aid, and Somalis as active agents, into a narrative about ourselves. This is not a story about how if we just do something we can save people. Nor is this the sequel to that story, about how you and I just can’t get enough people to care about starving Somalis. Famine in Somalia is not an excellent opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are in comparison, to talk about how selfish and rich we are, and feel bad about how little we are doing. This is a time to do what is necessary to ease the immediate suffering of millions of Somalis, yes. But it is also a time to realize that we are a part of one of the systems that failed to prepare for this famine, but not a part of many of the other causes of it.

The truth is, there is only a little you and I can do alleviate the situation in Somalia. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do the little we can. At the same time, most of us are indirectly linked to some of the main culprits – U.S. foreign policy, agricultural policy, and development policy, due to the people we elect and budgets we push for. And I don’t have any helpful hints on how to change those. Yet perhaps the blame that belongs to those systems, through our indirect links, falls on us as well. This is what it means to live in a globalized world: that we are ALL implicated in this famine, and the causes are so dispersed that it is impossible for anyone to escape some amount of guilt – with some deserving more than others. So if we are truly concerned with famine in Somalia we will recognize that the reality of how and why this is happening now, has happened before, and will likely happen again, is more messy and complex than the story we are hearing on the news. If this were as simple as a drought or people needing to donate more to emergency aid, this famine wouldn’t be happening.

But please donate, because it saves lives, but do so with humility and sadness, and maybe even anger. You can’t fix this. Terrible, terrible things happen, and people do terrible things to other people, there is little we can do and there is no way to not feel terrible about all of this. We must remain uncomfortable knowing that we can’t do enough, but do the little we can anyways. This is what Paul Farmer calls “the long defeat”.

Those of us who are in a position to, should push the broader “we” that includes policy makers and governments and development systems, to take responsibility for their role in creating this catastrophe. But even then, much of it is out of our control, and it is hubris to think otherwise. You can read a (passionate and scathing) critique and explanation of what is happening in Somalia and why, with greater details on who is largely responsible, and the limits of our responses, here.



One Response to “More on Famine”


  1. Famine.. :( « matwada_word - July 4, 2012

    […] via More on Famine « BList. […]

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