The appeal of drought as an explanation of hunger is that it removes guilt from policy makers. To analyse.
In early February 2022, the World Food Program (WFP) announced that 13 million people in the Horn of Africa were facing severe famine due to the drought in the area. Similar concerns have been raised for several countries in the Sahel West African this year.
Make no mistake, the drought is hurting farmers and herders in these regions. For example, the Horn of Africa has experienced three consecutive rainy seasons without success. However, blaming nature for hunger is biased at best and misleading at worst, as it obscures deeper structural problems and more complex explanations, let alone solutions.
The appeal of drought as an explanation for hunger is that it removes all guilt, allowing policy makers to attribute a humanitarian crisis to random climatic variations or an act of God. It is also attractive for its simplicity and its direct character. The rains stop, crops wither, livestock perish and people go hungry. But drought is no more the cause of hunger than a cold snap is the complete explanation for a winter death from exposure in my home state of Minnesota, USA.
I am a geographer specializing in the human environment and development who studies food insecurity factors in these regions. We know that famine is largely a colonial and post-colonial phenomenon in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. This is not the case with drought. Rainfall has long been highly variable in the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions, and farmers and herders have developed systems to deal with this variability.
Historically, farmers stored grain surpluses in good years so they could get through bad years and planted a mix of diverse crops, with different moisture requirements, to ensure that at least some of the crop was produced every year. Pastoralists were also highly mobile over large areas, a strategy that responded to the erratic rainfall patterns of dryland Africa. Beyond the household level, communities and kingdoms had grain reserves and networks of relatives who helped each other in times of shortage.
Many of these strategies began to be abandoned during the colonial period. The British and French colonial regimes used poll taxes (which had to be paid in cash) to force local farmers to grow more cash crops and store less surplus grain. Some ranchers were also encouraged to abandon their animals in favor of agriculture, or to develop fenced ranches.
Unlike pre-colonial times, when taxes were often used – in part – by African empires to put in place social safety nets, cash crops and excess value extracted through taxation during the colonial period were sent to distant European centers of power. Over time, this has crippled local people's risk management strategies, making them increasingly vulnerable to the ravages of drought, a situation that was once considered manageable climate variation.
This situation, described by many specialists as structural violence, continued in the postcolonial period. under the banner of the new green revolution for africa, development organizations have pushed for an increasingly commercial, high-external-input agriculture that involves the use of improved seeds, inorganic fertilizers and pesticides.
While this approach can increase yields of a narrow range of crops under ideal conditions, it often marginalizes the poor and women. It creates a system that is more vulnerable to drought. These new systems put farmers at risk, as they often buy inputs on credit, run into debt when harvests are less than ideal, or have to sell their crops to pay bills, a practice that undermines any effort to keep a surplus of production for a subsequent year.
The drought-famine causal model represents an extremely narrow view of malnutrition. Food security is a concept that is increasingly understood to include not one, but six dimensions: availability, access, stability, use, agency and sustainability.
Food production, when crippled by drought, represents a lack of food availability for a particular type of household that produces most of its own food. What this masks is a much more complex food system.
In the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, many households are increasingly purchasing food or living in urban areas. Access to food – the ability to buy food – is therefore just as important as its availability. This factor has been greatly exacerbated in recent months by rising world food prices.
These are also regions where several countries – for example, Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali and Burkina Faso – are plagued by political instability and conflict. It affects the stability of markets that farmers and herders use to buy food, input requirements and sales. They are just as essential as precipitation.
A semblance of a state, reasonable governance and basic security are necessary to support the more commercial agricultural systems that have been in place since the colonial period, which has made sorely lacking in many parts of the aforementioned African countries.
Export markets also collapsed for many farmers in these regions during the COVID-19 lockdowns abroad. This is how cut flowers and vegetables rotted on farms in Kenya when they could not be transported in the cargo holds of commercial planes that had virtually stopped flying to Europe for some time.
Then there are the constraints linked to the use of food, with the rise in the price of cooking fuels or lack of access to drinking water. It is therefore difficult for households to prepare a healthy meal.
Last but not least, the limited power or agency of people to shape their own food systems. Since the colonial period, this has led to an unsustainable mix of subsistence practices that are constantly threatened by drought.
Vulnerable food systems
As a short-term emergency relief organization, the World Food Program (WFP) is right to draw attention to drought and hunger in the Horn of Africa and Sahelian regions. But blaming the crisis on the drought is like blaming the dog for eating your homework.
Colonialism, globalization and modern development initiatives have produced more vulnerable food systems. Only by moving away from simplistic explanations of hunger and embracing a more nuanced understanding of food security can local communities, governments and international organizations work together to build more resilient food systems.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.