Alex de Waal has a new essay in the London Review of Books (39:12, 15 June 2017, pp. 9 – 12), which they titled, “The Nazis Used It, We Use it.” Below is an excerpt, the full essay is available with a subscription to the LRB.

In its primary use, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive: it’s something people do to one another, like torture or murder. Mass starvation as a consequence of the weather has very nearly disappeared: today’s famines are all caused by political decisions, yet journalists still use the phrase ‘man­-made famine’ as if such events were unusual.

Over the last half-­century, famines have become rarer and less lethal. Last year I came close to thinking that they might have come to an end. But this year, it’s possible that four or five famines will occur simultaneously. ‘We stand at a critical point in history,’ the head of the UN Office for the Co­ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the former Tory MP Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council in March, in one of his last statements before stepping down: ‘Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.’ It’s a ‘critical’ point, I’d argue, not because it is the worst crisis in our lifetime, but because a long decline – lasting seven decades – in mass death from starvation has come to an end; in fact it has been reversed.

O’Brien had no illusions about the causes of the four famines, actual or imminent, that he singled out in north-­eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. In each case, the main culprits are wars that result in the destruction of farms, livestock herds and markets, and ‘explicit’ decisions by the military to block humanitarian aid. In Nigeria, villages in the path of the war between Boko Haram and the army have been stripped of assets, income and food. As the army slowly reduces the areas under Boko Haram control, they are finding small towns where thousands starved to death last year. The counter-­insurgency grinds on, and the specialists who compile the data fed into the blandly named ‘integrated food security phase classification’ (IPC) system, worry that in this year’s ‘hungry season’, approximately June to October, communities in the war zones will again move up the IPC scale: from level four (‘humanitarian emergency’) to five (‘famine’). Last year in Nigeria, the UN and relief agencies could say that they didn’t appreciate the full extent of the crisis. This year we have been given due warning.

In South Sudan, the government and the rebel armies have fought much less against each other than against the civilian population. In the summer of 2016, evidence from aid agencies showed nutrition and death rates in the region that met the UN criteria for determining that a food crisis has reached famine levels. Fearing that declaring famine would antagonise the South Sudanese government, already paranoid and cracking down on international aid agencies (aid workers were being robbed, raped and murdered), the UN prevaricated. By February, even veterans of South Sudan’s horrendous famines of the 1980s were saying that this was as bad as anything in their experience, perhaps worse. The UN duly declared a famine.

Yemen, however, is the biggest impending disaster. Don’t be fooled by pictures showing hungry people in arid landscapes: the weather had nothing to do with the famine. More than seven million people in Yemen are hungry; far more are likely to die of starvation and disease than in battles and air raids. The military intervention led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has strangled the country’s economy. Before the war, 80 per cent of Yemen’s food was imported, mostly through the Red Sea port of al­ Hudaida. At Saudi insistence, backed by the US and the UK, the UN Security Council imposed a blockade on Yemen and while there’s an exemption for food, the inspection procedures are slow and laborious. Since Saudi aircraft bombed the container docks at al­ Hudaida, all ships have to be unloaded the old-­fashioned way, using derricks and stevedores. Roads, bridges and markets have been damaged or destroyed, slowing commerce to a crawl. The Bank of Yemen, relocated from the Houthi ­controlled capital, Sana’a, to the enclave controlled by the recognised government, no longer pays salaries. The Houthi forces also impose their own blockades, laying siege to the highland city of Taizz. Food is the biggest weapon, and lack of food the biggest killer, in the Yemen war. Unlike their blunt statements on war crimes in South Sudan, UN and aid agency statements on Yemen are muted: it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they feel unable to criticise Security Council decisions. While the famine deepens, the British and American navies persist in enforcing the blockade and diplomats at the Security Council discuss how they could recalibrate the embargo. All are in danger of becoming accessories to starvation.

Only in Somalia is drought partially responsible for the situation, though the war between a coalition of north-­east African armies and the militant group al ­Shabaab is primarily responsible for the immiseration of areas in the south of the country. Until this year, Somalia was the only country this century where the UN had declared the presence of famine: that was in 2011. In their recent book Dan Maxwell and Nisar Majid describe that famine as a ‘collective failure’.[*] Incompetence on the part of the Somali authorities and corruption are other factors. A final element in the 2011-­12 famine – which still rankles with aid professionals who struggled to halt an eminently preventable disaster – was the restriction on humanitarian work imposed by the US Patriot Act of 2001. Intended to criminalise support – material or symbolic, deliberate or inadvertent – for any group on the terrorist list, the Patriot Act meant that it was practically impossible for an aid agency to operate in the famine­-stricken area without risking prosecution in a US court. In principle, if al ­Shabaab hijacked a truckload of food provided by the Red Cross, the Red Cross would be criminally liable. Even the threat of prosecution posed a risk to their reputation that aid agencies weren’t ready to run. Staff at USAID and the State Department worked to find a way round this provision, but the Justice Department was immovable until the UN’s declaration of famine prompted a belated attempt to find a solution. In the nine months it took the DoJ to come up with one, the world’s biggest aid donor shipped no food to Somalia. Perhaps 260,000 Somalis, mainly children, died in that time. Most of the deaths could have been prevented if the Obama Administration had been more alert to a disaster caused by its decision to leave the Patriot Act untouched.

The humanitarian workaround – ‘carve out’ is the term used – of the Patriot Act is still in place. But it’s provisional and unclear, and the chilling effect of security surveillance of humanitarian actions in countries like Somalia, Syria and Yemen remains. Feeding the hungry and treating the sick are subject to security screening. It’s not only burdensome and intrusive, but deters the energetic and creative aid work needed in these crises.

Perhaps even more damaging has been the clampdown on money transfers. Remittances from the diaspora contribute at least 30 per cent of Somalia’s national income, and in the absence of a normal banking system, funds are transmitted through companies that use the hawala system. The businessmen who run these companies are interested in profit not ideology, but since 2001 counter-­terrorist organisations have tended to target them as possible accomplices to terror, rather than as commercial service providers who might cooperate in a regulatory framework that serves everyone’s interests. Since November 2001, when the US shut down al ­Barakaat, the biggest of these companies, on the basis of (unfounded) allegations that it was involved in terrorist financing, the Somali financial sector has been repeatedly battered by arbitrary restrictions and – as a consequence – the commercial banks have refused to do business with them.

Drought and crop failure have a part to play in this year’s hunger in Somalia, while the much more widespread drought in neighbouring Ethiopia passed off last year without famine thanks to an expeditious relief effort led by the government. At one point, the Ethiopian government and the UN World Food Programme were feeding 18 million Ethiopians, a higher number than the in-­need populations of the four countries on today’s danger list combined. There’s nothing inevitable about people dying from hunger when the rains fail. That fact can never be repeated too often.

The organisation I work for, the World Peace Foundation, has compiled a catalogue of every case of famine or forced mass starvation since 1870 that killed at least 100,000 people. There are 61 entries on the list, responsible for the deaths of at least 105 million people. About two thirds of the famine deaths in this period were in Asia, about 20 per cent in Europe and the USSR, just under 10 per cent in Africa. The biggest killers were famines that resulted from political decisions, among them the Gilded Age famines, the Great War famines in the Middle East, including the forced starvation of a million Armenians, the Russian Civil War famine, Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine from 1932 until 1934 (now known as the Holodomor), the Nazi ‘hunger plan’ for the Soviet Union, the famines during the Chinese Civil War, the starvation inflicted by the Japanese during the Second World War, and by Mao’s Great Leap Forward of 1958­62, the largest famine on record, which killed at least 25 million.


These political famines seem scarcely to register in our collective imagination. They are strikingly absent too from the books which construct theories of famine and policies for food security.

[Full essay available through the London Review of Books.]

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