Famine used to be one of the world’s most effective killers. A tenth of England’s population died in the Great Famine of 1315. In the mid-17th century starvation wiped out a third of the population of Poland, a tenth of all Scots and a third of all Finns. A million people died in the Irish famine of 1845. Between 108 BC and 1911 there were 1,828 famines in China alone. Every successive century saw a decline in the incidence of famine but 70 million still starved to death during the 20th century. Then, at the start of the 21st century, famine looked to be disappearing. There had been no reports of famine since 2012 but now, alas, famine is back.
Earlier this month a United Nations report suggested that 20 million people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia were at imminent risk. On Monday, the UN declared a state of famine in South Sudan, and Somalia is on the verge for the first time since 2011, when 260,000 lives were lost. People are going days without food. They are feeding their livestock on cardboard. There are 50,000 children facing death by starvation. In South Sudan, 4.9 million people, 40 per cent of the population, is in urgent need of food. A quarter of a million children are already terribly malnourished and close to death. Medication and water supplies are also running dangerously low.
Somalia is in the midst of its worst drought since 1950 and the crop has failed for the fourth successive time. That is not, though, the reason for its famine. South Sudan, a country with highly fertile land, has even less of an excuse. The failure is not natural; it is political. Famine is not about the absence of food; it is about the absence of a right to food. In his famous study of the Great Bengal famine of 1943, Amartya Sen showed that the total availability of food in Bengal was considerably higher than it had been two years earlier, when no famine took place. Destitute farmers were walking into the centre of Calcutta and dropping dead in front of local restaurants. There was food there but none of it was theirs.
It is plenty possible to feed the people of Somalia, notwithstanding the drought. There is no need for a humanitarian disaster in South Sudan. The problem in both cases is dismal government. The people of South Sudan, at six years old the world’s newest nation, have been, since 2013, subject to a civil war along ethnic lines in which 300,000 people have died and 2.3 million have been displaced. An internationally brokered ceasefire failed and violence devastated food production. The annual inflation rate for food is 800 per cent. With catastrophe battering down the door, President Kiir’s government has been blocking food aid to those areas of the country which back his former deputy and ethnic rival, Riek Machar. There is only so much that humanitarian assistance can do to combat fatal political malevolence of this kind. Somalia collapsed into anarchy after the military regime of President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. The two northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland broke away and the capital of Mogadishu was seized by a coalition of Islamists. An internally backed government has been trying to restore stability but, with none of the institutions of a functioning state, to no avail so far.
The pattern recurs whenever famine strikes. The Soviet experiment in the Ukraine in 1932, Mao’s collectivism in China in 1958, the best work of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after 1975 and the neglect of the North Korean government in the mid-1990s all condemned vast swathes of their populations to starvation. The famine in Biafra in 1967, in which 1.5 million people died, was caused by a government blockade. Civil war and appalling state incompetence turned a drought into a famine in Ethiopia in 1984; food production in the country that year dropped just 6 per cent. Somalia in 1992 was a war zone with no effective government, presided over by rivalrous warlords. The upshot was that a drought caused 300,000 Somalis to starve to death. In 1998, the brutal fight for South Sudan’s secession from Sudan resulted in the death through famine of 70,000 people.
It is not beyond the wit of man to predict that rainfall might be scanty in Africa but it is beyond the capacity of failed states to enforce the rights of their citizens. In the long term the saviour will be democratic government. The decline in the incidence of famine has been accompanied by a growth in political regimes answerable to their people. Democracies have early warning systems. A vigilant opposition and a free press alerts the nation to the news and elected politicians have to respond. India is still a poor country but, since democracy in 1947, it has managed to avoid famine which was common during the last years of British rule.
The people of South Sudan and Somalia cannot wait for the dividends of democracy. They need help yesterday and the insight that famine is about power leads directly to their best hope. To cite the title of a book by Michael Novak, who died last week, what the people of South Sudan and Somalia need is the spirit of democratic capitalism. The best currency to drop into countries in need is not food; it is cash. In a lecture in Oxford on Wednesday, David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, made the case for cash transfers for displaced people and those in dire need. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is calling for an extra £692 million to go to Somalia. The best way to spend it would not be to give it all to the aid agencies but to give it directly to the starving people.
All the evidence we have suggests that starving people will use the money to buy food. People with mortal fear do not waste money on cigarettes or football stickers. Save the Children now distributes vouchers and the evaluations show that when people buy their own milk and meat they eat more and waste less. The new purchasing power gives the farmers an incentive to produce which, in turn, puts food on their own tables. A rudimentary market is created and a spirit of enterprise flourishes. A recent study of DfID’s programme of cash transfers showed that it consistently worked to increase incomes and food consumption among the world’s poorest people. During the 2011 famine in Somalia, 1.5 million received cash transfers. It was like granting someone the right to life.
Famines are not, as people once believed, a sign of God’s displeasure, the inevitable result of too much breeding or a phenomenon of the elements, impossible to avoid even if hard to bear. Famines are man-made political disasters. We know how to stop famine. Today money; tomorrow democracy. But today money.
Philip Collins is a columnist and chief leader writer for The Times. He is also the chair of the board of trustees at the independent think tank Demos.