In early February 2011, shortly after the beginning of the January 25 revolution that toppled Husni Mubarak, I made a phone call to a friend in an informal area of Cairo. I wanted to check on her wellbeing, and was interested to hear her perspective on reports that some of the thugs hired by the government to harass protesters in Tahrir Square were coming from her neighborhood. The first thing my friend wanted to talk about, however, was the dramatic rise in the price of tomatoes. “Twelve pounds a kilo! Can you imagine?”
On December 23, 2012, following a week of imposed scarcity, the Syrian town of Halfaya received 100 sacks of flour from an Islamic charity. The town’s main bakery started churning out bread, an all too infrequent occurrence since violence between the Asad regime and opposition forces escalated earlier that year. Hungry citizens began to queue.
The grinding war in Syria brings new horrors with every passing week. The death toll and the number of displaced people continue to soar, as more areas of the country are reduced to rubble. This month, two additional issues with dire long-term consequences have been gaining attention: the possible drought affecting the northwest and the entrenchment of a war economy.
As the Middle East enters the 1990s, the food situation cannot be easily captured in catch phrases like “dire emergency." Outside of the Horn of Africa, no country confronts wide-scale starvation, though poor people throughout the region face personal food emergencies daily.
Agricultural production continues to grow at a respectable rate — often better than the world average — in most of the region. Many countries have increased average daily calorie supply per person to levels equal to or better than the industrialized West. Where 22 percent of the population (35 million people) were undernourished in 1969-1970, this had dropped to 11 percent (26 million people) in 1983-1985, a ratio that compares favorably with other parts of the Third World.
Gayle Smith coordinates the Africa program at the Washington-based Development Group for Alternative Policies. In the past ten years she has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa on relief and development issues. Her most recent trip to Ethiopia and Sudan was in June 1990. She spoke with Joe Stork in Washington.
Compared to the famine of 1984-1985, what is the scope of the problem in the Horn today?
In terms of numbers, the famine is somewhat less severe than it was five years ago. There are an estimated 5 million in need as opposed to 7-9 million in 1984-1985. Just over 1 million of these people are in Eritrea; another 2.2 million live in Tigray. The rest live elsewhere in the north of Ethiopia, areas now also affected by the war.
Most discussion of the food crisis in Africa is a model in which subsistence economies remain essentially intact and food insecurity is a transitory phenomenon, the result of external factors such as drought or war which temporarily upset the normal balance between sufficiency and dearth. My experience suggests that in Sudan subsistence economies have all but disappeared. Food insecurity no longer defines one or another period but is a constant condition of the market economy that has come to dominate the country.
For at least six years, top officials of the Somali government diverted US food aid from the most needy to enrich their friends and to feed the army fighting a long-running border war with Ethiopia. Throughout that period, the US Agency for International Development (AID) tolerated these food diversions which violated their own aid rules. In addition to enriching corrupt officials and assisting the Somali war effort, this food fraud subverted attempts to move arid, food-shortage-ridden Somalia closer to self-sufficiency. These are the conclusions of a 1986 General Accounting Office report which charged that AID knew about the Somali abuses and did nothing to stop them.
Famine takes root when farmers lose their means of production. In Africa, drought and war have forced huge numbers of peasants to sell off their animals and tools and abandon the land on which they depend, thus bringing local economies to a standstill. Grain yields in Africa declined by one-third per hectare over the last decade; food production is down by 15 percent since 1981. One out of every five Africans now depends on food aid. Interest payments on international loans now consume $15 billion per year. The continent’s industrial base is functioning at only one-third of capacity. The incidence of famine among Africa’s rural producers has in turn brought national economies to a halt.
A decade ago, the Horn of Africa was the scene of one of the most spectacular geopolitical realignments in Cold War history. A devastating famine helped trigger the ouster of Ethiopia’s strongly pro-US emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. A military junta seized power in Addis Ababa and pledged to place the strife-torn empire on the road to “socialism.” Three years later, the US and the Soviet Union switched positions in Ethiopia and Somalia and the entire region rippled with the aftershocks.
As Egypt’s dependence on food imports has increased, so has the cry for food security. The phrase “food security” (al-amn al-geza’i) can have several meanings in Egyptian policy debates. It is usually taken to mean either “hedging against fluctuations in world food prices” or “increasing domestic production of food crops.” The Ministry of Agriculture has recently been renamed Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.
The US food aid program originated in 1954 as a means of disposing of costly domestic agricultural surpluses. In that year, Congress passed the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act, known as Public Law 480. PL 480 enables food-deficit “friendly countries” to purchase US agricultural commodities with local currency, thus saving foreign exchange reserves and relieving US grain surpluses.
Once irrigated and lush but now barren, the Mesopotamian plain circling the ruins of Gilgamesh’s Uruk makes present day calls for food security via vast new irrigation projects appear shortsighted. Irrigation today suffers the same problems as in ancient times — salt buildup in the soil, collapsing dams, irrigation channels narrowed and blocked by silt buildup — plus some new ones, such as pesticide runoff. But irrigation planners figure they have learned a few things since Gilgamesh’s time. We can expect Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others to go on building new, expensive irrigation projects until they finally reach the limits of their water supplies. Reaching these limits should take only two or three more decades.
Access to food, and at what price, is a potent political issue in the Middle East today. The question is posed most starkly in conditions of war and armed conflict. The recent blockade of Palestinian camps near Beirut over many months reduced the inhabitants to starvation and compelled Palestinian forces to withdraw from Lebanese villages further south. Last year southern Sudan provided other images of blockade and hunger as government and rebel forces contested that region’s political future. Articles in this issue discuss the politics of famine relief in Ethiopia and Somalia — famines that to begin with resulted from the degradations of war in the Horn of Africa.