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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Record-breaking famine rocks East Africa


It has been called a crisis, an emergency, and a catastrophe. Whatever it is called, the hunger and food shortage in several East African countries — including Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia — is affecting 12 million people.

The United Nations officially declared parts of southern Somalia to be in famine in July. The United States estimates that 29,000 children have died in Somalia as a result of famine conditions. With 640,000 Somali children malnourished, more deaths are expected, according to the UN.

The Huffington Post reports seven deaths per 10,000 refugees daily in Ethiopia’s Dolo Ado area. Women and children are especially at risk, according to the UN News Centre.

The UN reports over 860,000 refugees from Somalia have fled to neighboring countries. Dadaab, home to a series of refugee camps in Kenya, holds 440,000 people, according to Reuters. The camps were originally meant to hold 90,000.

Questions as to how and why conditions became so bad are being looked into by the global community.

It is important to realize that there are varying levels of food shortage, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Edwins Gwako explained. Economic anthropologists view famine as the worst scale on a taxonomy for food insecurity. As the availability of food resources decreases, food insecurity increases.

The current hunger crisis is in East Africa is frequently attributed to drought.

“If there is no rain, grasses won’t grow — the basis for the vertebrate food chain,” said Dana Professor of Biology Lynn Moseley. This can be seen as pastures have failed and livestock has died.

Fourth-year Elizabeth Fisher, who studied in Kenya and Tanzania in the spring of 2011, said that “whole families were devastated by the loss of livestock.”

Drought is certainly one factor contributing to food shortages — a large factor directly affecting the procurement of food. But there are other factors as well.

“The severity of food shortage frequently depends on the (in)effectiveness of interventional actions by the government and non-government agencies,” said Gwako.

There are various food procurement frameworks in place. Non-government agencies like Oxfam work with farmers and pastoralists directly, Gwako explained. He also noted, however, that government agencies enact policies that are often ineffective because of poor funding, nepotism, underemployment, and corruption.

“The people are protected by the government; but sadly, the things that prevent these (food shortages) are not happening,” said Gwako. “On paper, there are good plans, but there’s ineffective implementation.”

MSNBC reports that billions of dollars have been budgeted previously for dams and equipment that could harvest, purify, and store rainwater; the frameworks are in place, but the money has not been used for its intended purpose.

Another factor contributing to food insecurity is human-wildlife conflict.

“As food sources dwindle, wildlife begins to crop-raid — and could harm people,” Fisher said.

The government policies to reduce human-wildlife conflict — like building electric fences — also fail, according to Heather von Bodungen, another student who studied in Kenya and Tanzania during the spring 2011.

“Projects meant to benefit humans aren’t always maintained well; and they’re not good for wildlife either,” she said.

There are further problems with food production and food distribution systems that affect food availability, according to Gwako. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that distribution of aid to parts of Somalia is exceptionally difficult, citing problems caused by both poor infrastructure and the extortion of money by militia.

According to The International Famine Centre, other factors that both contribute to and worsen famine conditions are violence, warfare, and disease.

“Violent conflicts and diseases like AIDS and malaria take away humans that are responsible for food production,” said Gwako.

Violent conditions are unsafe for relief workers, and relief resources cannot be distributed to parts of Somalia at this time. According to The Atlantic Wire, militant rebels known as al-Shabaab control the most severely affected areas of southern Somalia.

Although the current food crisis is dire, humanitarian efforts are underway — from African citizens, the governments of other nations, and NGOs — but budgeted amounts to provide the necessary support have not yet been met, according to Oxfam International. 

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