Feed the world?

Africa's children are starving, again. Finbarr Bermingham examines the reasons behind the latest severe food shortages in the region

Just as World War I was supposed to end all wars, the fundraising efforts of 1984 were designed to eradicate world hunger, once and for all. But 93 years after the Armistice of Compiègne Forest and 27 since Live Aid, the plagues of conflict and famine continue to ravage the Horn of Africa. Twelve million people across six countries face starvation. Simultaneously, impoverished refugees are terrorised by Islamic militants, driven from their homes and scattered across the desert plains. Scorched ground and thirsty mouths have been parched further by the worst drought in 60 years.

The United Nations declared a famine in parts of Somalia in July. But this is not a new crisis, even if it took Western camera crews a while to refocus their lenses on starving babies. Indeed, this is the fifth drought in the region this century and alarm bells were ringing as early as November 2010.

Shortage is the unfortunate rule in this part of the world rather than the exception. Spiralling populations (Ethiopia's has grown by 95 per cent since 1984) combined with rising temperatures have compounded this. Twenty-seven years after Geldof's wide-eyed pleas captivated the nation, little progress has been made. So why are the most afflicted people on Earth staring death in the face, again?

Mother Nature has certainly played her part: the people of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda have been dealt a woeful set of cards. The failure of this year's crops left millions of unfed mouths. The sight of dead livestock strewn across the plain has become commonplace and with the growing problem of climate change, droughts are more frequent and extreme, even for this habitually withered corner of Africa. However, the suggestion that recent drought and crop failure should shoulder all of the blame is ill-conceived (even prior to the latest crisis, up to 50 per cent of Somali citizens relied on aid packages to eat), for the causes are manifold.

The efforts of aid workers are valiant, but some are beginning to hear the ill-advised tones of King Canute in campaigners' voices. Just as the king was certain the incoming tide would stop at his feet upon his command, assurances that our money will "make a difference" sound increasingly deluded. There's a growing fear that the problems in North East Africa are systematic, manmade and even more endemic than failed rains.

Failed state

The region is one of the most politically volatile in the world. In the twenty years since it had a functioning government, Somalia has become synonymous with piracy, terror and war. The government in Eritrea are so secretive that they refuse to divulge how much or little food there is in the country (although it's suspected that up to half the population are malnourished). Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been accused of playing down food shortages in the Somali region of his country and has also had to refute claims that Live Aid funds paid for weapons. It's easy to forget that in 1984, amid all the singing, Ethiopia was involved in a bloody civil war.

The assassination of international aid workers is relatively common in the region and in time-honoured fashion, the latest effort has been severely disrupted. Swathes of Somalia are in the grip of Islamic militants who have been strangling attempts to get packages to famine-hit areas. The worst hit parts of the country are controlled by al-Shabaab (an organisation with links to al-Qaeda), whose paranoid famine denial and refusal to admit aid workers have choked these areas of vital assistance.

Al-Shabaab have been auctioning off what water there is to farmers in the country's south and interrupting the free passage of Somali people to more hospitable terrain (in the most arid places on Earth, migration can be key to sustaining livestock and communities). While their foot remains on the throat of Somalia's recovery effort, it's questionable how much can be done for the country's neediest.

As is often the case, there are more clandestine factors at work, too. The "silent tsunami" of rising food prices World Food Programme Director Josette Sheeran warned of in 2008 has violently shaken a region in which approximately 50 per cent of household income goes on food. In some cases, the price of staple crops has doubled over the past year. In Kenya, for instance, the price of potatoes is twice what it was in January 2010. In Somalia, maize is 117 per cent more expensive than it was in May 2010. The options are simple: earn twice as much money, or eat half as much food. Sadly, the former is rarely possible.

Price wars

The situation may be baffling for those who have read reports of a record corn harvest of 13.2 billion bushels forecast for America this year, as well as huge increases in Russia, Canada and the European Union. So why are food prices so high? Some have pointed to the increase in demand. The global rate of grain production per person has been declining since 1983. Bumper harvests are well and good, but will they stretch to 100 million extra mouths this time next year?

Others have highlighted the higher demand for biofuels. More than one third of US corn production goes towards making ethanol, while the European Union expends half of all its vegetable oil in making biodiesel. In rushing to come into line with "green" legislation, those in the West have found themselves in an ethical corner: fuel or food?

Further blame has been heaped on the US Treasury who are accused of purposely devaluing the US dollar by printing more currency. This action confuses markets, leading to widespread speculation in commodities, market instability, and increased commodity prices across the world.

The nature versus lack of political nurture argument will rumble on, ad nauseam. It will do so to a backdrop of dying children. Aid efforts should never be discouraged, but the world needs to become more proactive in its attempts to fight famine. Political reform is vital, particularly in Somalia. The most difficult barrier to overcome, however, is the acceleration of commodities markets. An ethical rethink at the top level of government and more responsible market practices are required, but with emissions targets and powerful lobbies at home, these might, sadly, be a bridge too far.