The Politics of Starvation: Food Security = National Security

Read the news about east Africa, and you’ll hear that drought caused the food crisis affecting 3 million people in Somalia and 10 million altogether in the Horn of Africa. But that drought actually should be seen as exacerbating a situation that has kept Somalia on the brink of starvation for years: the absence of a functioning government, something that country has been without since 1991. In this era of high food prices and global economy, food security and political stability have been irreversibly bound together. 

Somalia is an international basket case, having descended into chaos following the fall of the central government in 1991 and with the militant Islamic group al-Shabab now effectively in control. So when the rains failed to come this summer, Somalia’s vulnerability was brought into sharp relief: it simply had no resilience in its agriculture systems.

The wisdom of Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen could hardly be more relevant right now: democracies do not experience famines, because the public scrutiny of such governments gives them reason to prevent them. 

Indeed, the history of famine in the Horn of Africa — particularly in Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia — shows that while drought may be an immediate cause, political missteps are really what underlie starvation.

The Ethiopian famine of 1985 stemmed largely from President Mengistu Haile Miriam’s socialist development policies. As part of his land reform agenda, Mengistu grouped rural people into Peasant Associations. But they were highly politicized, benefiting those with ties to the regime. The possibility of land redistribution at any moment served to discourage farmers from investing in the productivity of their land. The government imposed strict price controls on these farmers, and inefficiently allocated most of its agricultural resources toward state and collectivized farms that as a whole produced only 10% of the nation’s food.

And even once food shortages had become evident, the regime prioritized the consolidation of its control over the countryside rather than respond swiftly to emerging disaster. This political failure is evident in the involuntary resettlement program that diverted resources away from emergency relief.

The 2003 Ethiopian famine occurred as a result of bad policies imposed by the World Bank in accordance with the Washington consensus. As Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman discuss in Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, the World Bank, through its structural adjustment policy, insisted that African governments remove investments in agriculture, saying that it was the private sector's job. Yet in Ethiopia, the private sector was underdeveloped. Despite huge crop yields for Ethiopian farmers in 2002, the country was missing an efficient market to absorb those yields. The lack of storage facilities caused the surplus crops to flood the market, driving down prices and making farmers curtail production to maintain a profit. No network was in place to transfer crops from productive agricultural regions to less arable areas.

Somalia may even be a more daunting case than those two examples, because its problem is less about misguided policy and about being a completely failed state.

The connection between a failed state and food insecurity requires a rethinking of the global food situation. The United States’ action on global hunger — most evident in the Feed the Future initiative — is based largely on the idea that food insecurity generates extremism among developing country populations that may ultimately pose a national security threat. But this issue also needs to be looked at another way: Failed states are vulnerable to food crises, which in turn fuels instability among their people.

Feed the Future, however, reflects a gap in addressing food security and governance. Feed the Future targets 20 of the world’s poorest countries but does not include Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe — three of the most poorly governed countries in Africa. This is probably because the U.S. Agency for International Development is skeptical of how well its projects could be implemented in lawless countries. But that reality also calls for increased attention to the linkages between food security and governance.

In this era of rising food prices and climate change, states' viability will be tested by their ability to ensure food security. Governments that neglect agriculture will risk sending their countries into recurring chaos — and will compromise their regimes’ very existence.

Indeed, such potential for food issues to up-end governments can be seen as recent as 2008. During the 2008 food price spike, which sparked riots in three dozen countries, unrest in Haiti led to the overthrow of the government. That same year, Madagascar’s government was unseated, due in part to popular opposition over the government’s deal with a South Korean company that would have leased roughly half of the nation’s agricultural land for corn and palm oil production. That deal was ultimately canceled.

Thus it is fitting that this year the World Food Prize, which is essentially the Nobel Prize of agriculture, decided to honor two former heads of state, John Kufuor of Ghana and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Both leaders made fighting hunger and malnutrition a centerpiece of their governing agenda. And so when Kufuor and Lula da Silva are honored in Iowa in October, it will send a message around the world that combating food insecurity is a matter of political will.

Somalia's situation provides a valuable lesson for the international community: in this era of high food prices and climate change, ensuring food security will become a matter of political survival, because those states that neglect this issue may very well find themselves scrambling to deal with the resulting chaos.

Photo Credit: RIN Photos