Famine and The absent Ethiopian State – By Teodros Kiros (Ph.D)

May 21st, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Six million children in Ethiopia are at risk of acute malnutrition following the failure of rains, the UN children’s agency, Unicef, has warned.

More than 60,000 children in two Ethiopian regions require immediate specialist feeding just to survive, Unicef says.

The situation is expected to worsen in the next few months as crops fail. (more…)

Six million children in Ethiopia are at risk of acute malnutrition following the failure of rains, the UN children’s agency, Unicef, has warned.

More than 60,000 children in two Ethiopian regions require immediate specialist feeding just to survive, Unicef says.

The situation is expected to worsen in the next few months as crops fail.

These words appeared immediately after I wrote on famine two days ago, and Ethiopia is once again ready to be visually humiliated by the world.

Consider the following syllogism to understand the Ethiopian condition at the perilous moment of famine.

Some cynics will say there are too many people down there.

Famine strikes

Ethiopians die in record numbers.

Note a subtlety here. Too many people implies that they cannot all be fed, and when famine strikes, they will die because there are too many of them. Moreover, too many people also implies that there are scarce goods for them, against the natural fact that there are finite goods in this world, since as Malthus taught us, scarcity and overpopulation are the enemies of humanity.

Famished people inevitably become poor people, if they somehow survive. They supposedly burden the planet because of their sheer numbers and the fact of scarcity. There is no food for them, and this is a function of another menacing fact about them, which can be expressed in the following derivative syllogism.

Now consider the following derivative syllogism;

X has too many children

Having too many children is a sign of misplanning

X is disorganized and uncultured.

Poor people such as X dug their own graves because they bred like flies and overpopulated our planet of finite goods. If poor people knew how to organize their lives, they would know precisely how to prepare themselves against the ravishes of famine by having fewer children, substantial savings and good work habits and functional values. Poverty by definition, the Malthusians think, is a function of moral disorganization. Poor people contribute to the misery of the world by their irresponsibilties and inability of controlling their destinies.

Moral disorganization propelled by dysfunctional values is antithetical to war against poverty. In his time, Malthus protested against the existence of poor people and suggested their slow death, so that the world could plan intelligently by assuming scarcity as a feature of the human condition. None of these arguments are true. For years, however, humanity has been feasting on them as truths, which have insinuated themselves into our thinking lives as ideologies. It is outrageously propagated that poor people do not plan, are lascivious, suffer from the victimization syndrome, eat badly, and under nourish themselves and much else. I call this way of framing moral knowledge hegemonic ideologies, which I will explicate in future article.

Drought is one of the causes of famine, is a point that I established earlier. Natural disasters of all kinds have afflicted humankind for millennia. The Torah introduces us most poignantly to the disastrous famine that afflicted a record number of desperate Egyptian bodies for seven years. The fat years of plenty and prosperity were replaced by the seven lean years of anguish, famish and desperation. In time, through the miraculous transcendental intervention, the lean years were displaced by the fat years. This was a classic locus of time and patience healing the wounds of an ancient African civilization.

The plagues of locusts are also another major source of famine. This natural phenomenon has been systematically contained by modern science in Europe and elsewhere in the materially civilized world; whereas Africa continues to be ravished by locust infestation to this very day.

One of the devastating consequences of natural famines is population reduction. China in 1867-68 under the Tonghi Restoration was afflicted by famine, and the province of Shanxi was depopulated substantially. An Estimated mortality of 9.5-13 million people occurred.

African famines are also exasperated by natural facts peculiar to the continent, such as the fact that African soils are made up of sand and laterite, which erode easily and hold less water even where there is plenty of rain, than the clayey and humus regions of vast portions of the world. The high iron and aluminum content makes the African soil systems hard to turn, therefore, less exposed to sun and air, which inturn results in cultivatable land. Thus African soil systems become devegetated and turn into dry land, which cannot absorb rain.

At the end of these tragic facts, drought appears as the final kiss of death, and famine is the expected result.
Famine is caused by several factors. There are natural and artificial reasons. Drought is a natural cause. War, shortage of food, mismanaged resources and population growths are artificial causes. Several future articles will address the natural causes of famine extensively; before I move on to consider the role of politics, culture and behavior in the production of famine, as instances of the artificial causes of famine.

Leading experts in the world have identified drought and crop failure as the leading forces behind famine. The natural causes of famine are beyond our control. Science, however, can help us to mitigate the role of nature in making us helpless. We can for example improve the means of transportation by making it possible for a “rich harvest” in one site to supplement a poor harvest in another area. Of course no matter what we do, we cannot control the devastating power of hail, storm, frost and the like. We can however, do as the French did in Algiers to combat locust infestation. Effective water storage systems can also avert the impact of famine.

Local and regional famines in our time are directly caused by natural causes. The chief causes are the inability to regulate the patterns of rainfall, the ineffectiveness of systems of water storage, and the complications of enhancing the infertility of dry lands. These are some of the main natural causes of famine, which the West has already combated with improved scientific measures, whereas Africa continues to be plagued by them. Natural causes produced some of the major famines in the world. There was a great famine in Egypt; the great famine in Rome in 436 B.C.; the great famine in India between 1790-1792 that killed so many people that they could not even be buried properly; in 1846-1847 famine in Ireland killed hundreds of people; the famine in Russia in 1891-1892; the famine of 1887-1889 in China. These are some of the major parts of the world which have experienced famine.

In all these regions famines are directly caused by the forces of nature beyond human control, and yet major scientific efforts were made to prepare against the expected arrival of famines. India in particular did not successfully combat the natural causes, because it did not have functional democratic institutions guided by effective public policies well into the twentieth century.

I must sadly conclude that the leading cause of famine in Ethiopia at the moment is the absence of a functional and compassionate state.

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