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The famine in Somalia has moved governments, multilateral development agencies, NGOs, and individuals to donate and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to relief efforts. Yet, while supporting desperately needed immediate humanitarian relief efforts, the development community must not lose sight of the root source of famine in the Horn of Africa – corruption and lack of democratic governance and responsibility.
When Amartya Sen made his famous argument that functional democracies are an effective tool against famine, he was criticized by many. Despite criticism, works in support of Sen’s argument continue to appear; for instance, this new book by Thomas Keneally explores governance breakdowns and the role of authoritarian practices at the core of major famines in recent history – in Ireland, Bengal, and Ethiopia. Yet these lessons are not often taken to heart.
A BBC investigation into the root sources of Kenyan food crisis is a good example of how governance breakdowns and high levels of corruption stand at the epicenter of the food insecurity problems in the country. As John Githongo, a world-famous anti-corruption activist, points out during the interview, famines in Africa are man-made. Although some would disagree with Githongo’s view, dig a little deeper and it is difficult to dispute that natural disasters may facilitate the crisis, but they are not the cause.
In 2001, then vice-chairman of Transparency International Tunku Abdul Aziz gave a good overview of the importance of paying attention to governance and corruption issues in trying to address food security concerns. Corrupt governments, he noted, “cannot be expected to develop and implement sound long-term agricultural policies, including land tenure and water management, against a background of institutional instability.”
The fact of the matter is that droughts can happen and they can affect food production. Much of this is beyond human control. What matters more, however, is how governments and their policies prepare countries (or leave them unprepared) to deal with natural disasters such as droughts.
The prevalent view you see in the media is that we need to increase aid to deal with famine in the Horn of Africa. Aid can help mitigate the ongoing crisis, but humanitarian relief won’t address structural problems that destabilize food supplies.
You can’t prevent droughts, but you can improve governance and be prepared to deal with them when they occur. Institutional reform, governance changes, and serious commitment to eradicating corruption are certainly worth the investment. The humanitarian costs of not doing so speak for themselves.