Famine’s afoot

Opinion by Mina Shah
March 19, 2017, 12:31 a.m.

At present, several countries in the Horn of Africa and East Africa are experiencing severe drought conditions. South Sudan has declared that they are now again at a point of experiencing famine. Ethiopia has been in a drought for two years, and it is the worst they have seen in half a century. Somalia is verging on the edge of another disastrous famine, which the World Health Organization is now saying there are a mere two months left to prevent. It would be Somalia’s third famine in twenty-five years.

This series of events ought to be terrifying for several reasons, not the least of which being that the increasing frequency of disasters like this is indicative that the negative effects of climate change are looming. This drought and its accompanying famines also remind us that if we do not move quickly and try to mitigate the effects of climate change, it will literally kill us.

It may be very easy to sit back and say something to the effect of “Oh, aren’t all these natural disasters horrible.” While it is true that the situation is not good and we should feel empathy toward the people affected by the droughts, it is important, too, to remember that this is not exactly a series of random natural disasters. They are not necessarily orchestrated by particular individuals, but the way in which they end up affecting people demonstrates that they will disproportionately affect the least advantaged in our global society.

Global structures of power, reinforced by all countries holding power, have created conditions such that certain spaces in the world populated by certain kinds of people (that is, mostly low-income people and people of color) are the most negatively affected by natural disasters. This is part of the reason that this course of events ought to be so troubling to us worldwide. Some theories of justice tell us that our society should try to provide the best position possible for the least well-off. Now, of course, we can argue about what it means to be well-off, and it is also certainly true that the current framing of our society based on systems of global capital flow does not by any means do the best job of measuring who is and who isn’t well-off. That being said, it does say a lot about us that the folks in this world with the most wealth tend to hoard it, whereas those with the least wealth are able to die of starvation.

We cannot in good conscience call this a “natural disaster,” because to call something “natural” connotes that humans have no role in its impact and that there would have been no way to prevent the destruction caused by the particular series of events. Certainly, at the very least in this situation, neither of those things are true. Addressing the first of these two issues, humans have absolutely played a role in creating these drought conditions. The fact that the drought is so intense and has been happening for so long in some of these spaces is a direct result of climate change, produced by the excessive burning of fossil fuels that is leading to the overall temperature of the world rising. In terms of the second piece, regarding prevention of destruction, this too is possible for us (globally, internationally, and even from the U.S.) to address.

Since we, the U.S., have some responsibility in creating this situation (playing a major role in the burning of fossil fuels that worsen climate change and in the destabilization of government infrastructure in South Sudan and even more so in Somalia), it only follows that we should also have some hand in providing aid for those affected. This aid, though, should be well-calculated and in a form that will actually be useful to people and communities affected. As a result, we must pay attention to histories of forms of aid and the power dynamics at play between the aid-giving and aid-receiving spaces. In terms of appropriate aid, it seems that sending food, even if non-perishable, is not a good idea, as distribution politics often prevent those with the highest need from receiving that food. Huge monetary donations may not be the best way to change the situation with regard to food security either, again because of the problematic nature of distribution politics. From where we sit here, it seems that potentially the most effective long-term solution looks something more like intensive action to prevent and then reverse climate change.

In the intermediate, this doesn’t seem like much. And, in fact, at this point it may be too late to prevent the famine conditions from where we sit. However, this does not mean that the long-term impacts of trying to reverse climate change in multiple ways won’t be felt. Especially as those who have played such a huge role in creating the problem of climate change in the first place, we have a responsibility to make better what we have broken.


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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