Recently, I got an e-mail from the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is working with USAID to raise awareness of the continuing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The toll in lives is already appalling, including over 29,000 deaths from starvation and outbreaks of measles and cholera, and hundreds more dying every day. The crisis has produced almost a million refugees, including over 400,000 at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.
I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that occasional famine is a painful fact of life, especially in poor, overpopulated regions of arid, sub-Saharan nations, and that any effort to help, however well-intentioned, is only going to delay the inevitable. I won't deny that I've had some of these thoughts myself. But I was brought up short by a passage that Johann Hari wrote in a recent book review:
As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an "act of God" - a "biblical" failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobelwinning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly - because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.
Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy. For example, during the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed itself, but the imperial British rulers of the time demanded that the majority of it be shipped abroad for export. The only space left for the Irish to grow their own food was on small and marginal plots, and when the potato blight wiped out their chief crop, disaster followed.
And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought - aggravated, no doubt, by climate change - but that alone wouldn't have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems. But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that's the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:
The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.
The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They've blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They've even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.
So, yes, famine is an "act of God" - but only in the sense that it's caused by God's self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don't value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.
Whenever I think of Somalia, I'm reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?
If you want to help, see the FBB's Humanist Crisis Response Program, supporting the International Rescue Committee.