By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman
A humanitarian disaster is unfolding as you read this. In a world filled with excess food some 20 million people across four countries (South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and North-East Nigeria) face the risk of famine. Some 1.4 million children are estimated to be at imminent risk of death from severe malnutrition. Among the causes of this disaster are conflict, poverty, inequality and extreme weather.
The crisis is largely human-made. Scorched-earth tactics by conflicted parties are destroying crops and critical infrastructure such as health facilities. Heavy fighting is forcing farmers to abandon their fields and is blocking humanitarian access to people in desperate need of food aid and clean water.
The effect of hunger is particularly devastating to children. Children need specific nutrients, such as vitamins E, C and D in their early years. Improper nourishment leads to a reduction of immunity and susceptibility to diseases that could be fatal.
Little humanitarian aid
Each of the four countries is at war. Famine is never just a natural disaster; it is always a product of politics. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has pointed out that very little money is available to provide humanitarian aid. Whether the U.S., by far the biggest humanitarian donor, will follow through on its commitments under President Trump remains unclear.
Why are these countries at war? The political pressures are different in each country. In Nigeria and South Sudan the hostilities are driven by the desire to control valuable oil and natural-gas assets and the resulting wealth.
Nigeria is a nation split in two. The oil-rich, largely Christian south is potentially very wealthy, whereas the Muslim north is extremely poor. Corruption is rampant and very little of this potential wealth goes to the population. There is widespread anger at government officials who have become rich, corrupt and autocratic thanks to abundant oil revenues. This disgust, especially in the poverty-stricken north, has sparked the violent insurgent group Boko Haram.
Power struggles over oil wealth
The conflict in South Sudan has different roots, but shares a common link to oil. A civil war in Sudan lasted from 1955 to 1972 and only ended when the Muslim-dominated government in the north agreed to grant autonomy to the southern part of the country, largely practitioners of traditional African religions or Christianity. When oil was discovered in the south, the rulers in the north repudiated many of their earlier promises and sought to gain control of the oil fields, sparking a second war that lasted from 1983 to 2005. In the end the south was granted full autonomy. The south became independent in 2011. A power struggle within the new country has resulted in a brutal ethnic civil war between the Nuer and the Dinkas. The violence and famine are causing great problems for nearby countries. For example, almost 3,000 refugees are fleeing South Sudan each day into Uganda. The number of refugees could surpass a million by the middle of 2017. Uganda is being overwhelmed and is increasingly unable to cope with these vulnerable refugees.
Hunger is a worldwide silent disaster. You might think that hunger is about too many people and too little food. This is not the case. Hunger is about Power, Poverty and Inequality. Hunger persists in a world where there is more food available than ever before and agricultural yields have increased enormously. Worldwide, almost a billion people do not have enough to eat. People are chronically hungry because they are too poor to purchase enough food or have lost the land they used to cultivate. Hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Many hungry people live in countries with food surpluses, not food shortages.
Last year India exported 30 million metric tons of food worth more than $23 billion in U.S. dollars. That included 11 million tons of rice and 2 million tons of vegetables. Meanwhile, India’s food-insecure population is about 250 million people.
Hunger in rich countries, too
It should be noted that rich countries can also have victims of hunger. In the United States, almost 50 million people struggle against hunger–surely not because there is a shortage of food.
Famines are the result of politics and power. For example, the famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 was a direct result of Stalin’s policies of collectivization. The devastating Chinese famine in 1958-62 was caused largely by Mao’s disastrous rush to industrialization–the great leap forward. An example of the outrageous use of power occurred during the Irish potato famine from 1846 to 1848. During this period the British government insisted that Ireland continue to feed the British Isles. Despite the devastating crop failure, Ireland exported around 300,000 tons of grain annually during the famine.
Alleviating hunger would require addressing the political problems in these countries, a more robust social safety net and policies preventing people from being forced to leave their farms.
While food banks and humanitarian help are important, the aim should be to replace charity with social justice.
To quote President Franklin Roosevelt, “The test of progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough to people who have too little”.
Hunger-relief organizations: Oxfam, UN World food program (WFP), Feeding America and UNICEF.
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, an IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.