Yet again, famine stalks the Horn of Africa. More than 10 million people are fighting for survival, mainly pastoralist communities in the hyper-arid regions of Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Every day brings news of more deaths and massive inflows of starving people into refugee camps in Kenya, across the border from Somalia.
The immediate cause of this disaster is clear — the rains have failed for two years running in the dry regions of East Africa. These are places where water is so scarce year after year that crop production is marginal at best.
Millions of households, with tens of millions of nomadic or semi-nomadic people, tend camels, sheep, goats and other livestock, which they move large distances to reach rain-fed pastures. When the rains fail, the grasses shrivel, the livestock die and communities face starvation.
Pastoralism has long been a harrowing existence in the Horn of Africa. The location of life-supporting pastures is determined by the unstable and largely unpredictable rains, rather than by political boundaries. Yet we live in an era when political boundaries, not the lives of nomadic pastoralists, are sacrosanct. These boundaries, together with growing populations of sedentary farmers, have hemmed in pastoralist communities.
The political boundaries exist as a legacy of the colonial era, not as the result of cultural realities and economic needs. Somalia, for example, contains only a part of the Somali-speaking pastoralist population, with large numbers living across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia. As a result, the Ethiopian-Somalia border has been war-torn for decades.
A massive drought this year was not exactly predictable, but the risk of famine was easily foreseeable. Indeed, two years ago, in a meeting with US President Barack Obama, I described the vulnerability of the African drylands. When the rains fail there, wars begin. I showed Obama a map from my book Common Wealth, which depicts the overlap of dryland climates and conflict zones. I noted to him that the region urgently requires a development strategy, not a military approach.
Obama responded that the US Congress would not support a major development effort for the drylands.
“Find me another 100 votes in Congress,” he said.
I don’t know whether Obama’s leadership might have found those votes, but I do know that the US has not mustered the national effort to respond effectively to the Horn of Africa’s needs. The US is far too focused on expensive and failed military approaches in the drylands — whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia — to pay heed to long-term economic development strategies aimed at addressing the root causes of these countries’ ongoing crises.
This year’s drought came at a time of political and economic turmoil in both the US and Europe. The distorted political system in the US gives the rich everything they want in the form of tax cuts, while slashing programs for the poor. There is no interest in Washington in addressing the needs of the poor in the US, much less the needs of the rest of the world’s poor.
In Europe, the global financial crisis of 2008 left a legacy of deep political and economic crisis in the weaker economies of Southern Europe. This crisis absorbed almost all of the EU’s political attention this summer, even as famine in Africa has worsened.