More than Malnutrition: Famine as Social Crisis

There were many reasons for the under-recognized success in reducing famines: growing prosperity in Asia, the end of totalitarianism and wars of annihilation, and the control or elimination of killer diseases such as smallpox and typhus that killed millions of malnourished children. But credit also belongs to the international humanitarian response system. Twenty years ago I criticized the ”humanitarian international” for failing to deal with the political causes of mass starvation, but today it is clear that a professional and effective—and more politically aware—humanitarianism played its part in the near-conquest of famine.

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The foreign policy debate I’d like to see

Under the Obama Administration, we have seen the humanitarian imperative compromised by counter-terror laws and the politics of alliances. In Somalia and Syria, aid agencies were hampered by the PATRIOT Act from operating in areas in which they might be deemed to be providing assistance, material or symbolic, to groups labeled as terrorists. Preventable humanitarian disasters followed. In Yemen, the U.S. has been party to economic warfare conducted by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, causing famine conditions. In each of these cases, U.S. counter-humanitarianism cost lives, to no political benefit.

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Is the Era of Great Famines Over?

I’ve studied famine and humanitarian relief for more than 30 years, and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw during a visit to Ethiopia last month. As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.

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