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This essay will attempt to critically examine the cause of famine in Africa Assignment

The essays general approach will first be one of definition explaining what famine is, then using the example of famine within Africa the essay will look deeper into the reasons of localised famine, finally ending with an evalution as to whether famine is a natural or man made problem.

According to the enclopedia encarta the definition of famine is a severe shortage of food, generally affecting a widespread area and large numbers of people. Natural causes include droughts, floods, earthquakes, insect plagues, and plant disease. Human causes include wars, civil disturbances, sieges, and deliberate crop destruction. Widespread, chronic hunger and malnutrition may result from severe poverty, inefficient food distribution, or population increases disproportionate to the food-producing or procuring capacity of people in a region.

As we can see from the basic defintion the accepted cause of famines is thought to be too many people sharing too few resources, and to a certain extent this is true. Recent attempts have been made to distinguish between “natural” and “man-made” famines; natural, where a flood/drought culminates in famine; and man-made where there are no such events and it is primarily a matter of economics.

“Famine is, by its very nature, a social phenomenon, but the forces influencing such occurrences may well include developments in physical nature in addition to social processes. The idea that the causation of famines can be neatly split into “natural” and “man-made” ones would seem to be a bit of a non-starter.”

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This alliance of nature with societies social and economic processes was evident in the most serious famine experienced this century,Ethiopia in 1973. In this case famine was initiated by a natural occurrence, with its impact being related to how well the respective community/country was organised.

In Ethiopia, reports suggested deaths somewhere in the region of 50,000 to 200,000 people in a population of some 27 million. The area most severely hit by the famine was in north-east Ethiopia where a drought in the province of Wollo, caused by the failure of the main rains, devastated the harvest resulting in a massive decline in food output.

However, this decline should never have caused the deaths it eventually did. In an essay by Sen in 1981 he studies the food output of all the provinces of Ethiopia for the famine period of 1972 to 1974. In this essay he discovered that 65% of the districts continued to produce their average yield of crops and that the total food availability decline for the whole of Ethiopia was only 7% of the country’s normal total output, not sufficient to warrant the severity of the conditions felt by a large proportion of the population.

So if the deaths were not directly related to a total food shortage in Ethiopia caused by the drought, then what can they be attributed to? Reports published by the Ethiopian government seem to suggest that the problems were to do with the distribution of relief;

“Government statistics….indicate that up to November 1973 only 12,000 tonnes of grain were distributed to all areas by the government….some 6,500 tonnes only went to Wollo.”(Sen, 1981)

However, the inadequacy of government logistics explains only a few of the problems experienced in Ethiopia. The effects of the drought, poor harvest and subsequent famine in Wollo had the inevitable outcome of collapsing the populations purchasing power. Through the failure of farmers direct entitlements (being entitled to your own produce) and labourers trade entitlements (being entitled to trade two items of equal value with someone else) the population of Wollo was unable to afford to import food from outside the region, hence explaining why so many poeple from many from the same region suffered in the famine.

The initiating factor of the drought that resulted in the poor harvest started a cumulative decline in Wollo that eventually resulted in labourers becoming unemployed and tenants being evicted from their land, all factors that worsened their exchange entitlements and hence helps explain the severity of the famine.

The segment of the population that was affected worst of all by the drought was the pastoralists. In their case they lost vital grasing land in the Awash Valley because of expansion in foreign-owned commercial agriculture. This resulted in the death of their animals and eventually the pastoralists themselves. The pastoralist’s situation was compounded by the worsening of terms of trade for their remaining livestock and grain;

“The pastoralist, hit by the drought, was decimated by the market mechanism.”(Sen, 1981)

As we can see from this study of the 1973 Ethiopian famine, the initiating factor may well have been the drought (natural environment) but the factors that contributed most significantly to the death toll were all directly linked to the economics of the country.This can also be said for another case of famine in Africa, the bangal famine of 1943.

In this case the initiating factor had nothing to do with the natural environment; instead it was related to the country’s massive expansion of economic activity related to the war effort of the time. This economic expansion was favourable to one (urban) section of the community at the expense of the rural labouring classes. These rural classes lost out in the battle to command food, since their exchange entitlements were significantly reduced because their wages had not increased at the same rate as the food prices, resulting in a net decrease in their real income. This decrease was so severe that almost one quarter of Bengal’s population died in the famine of 1943, not because of any natural disaster, simply because of uneven economic expansion inducing a classic inflationary boom famine.

In short then, it may be said that from evidence of famines in the twentieth century the fundamental component that exacerbates the initial cause of the famine is the political economy of the country and its entitlement structure. As Dreze states in his essay (1990);

“There is no evidence to doubt that all famines in the modern world are preventable by human action; that when people die of starvation there is invariably some massive social failure (whether or not a natural phenomenon had an initiating role in the causal process); and that the responsibilities for that failure deserve explicit attention and analysis, not evasion.”

In conclusion famine within Africa is regularly described as being in ‘crisis’, yet, some dispute the use of the word when looking at the history and contemporary situation of Africa, as a whole. ‘Crisis’ seems to denote a problem or problems that are prevailing, which are short term and seemingly solvable. This cannot be the case with reference to Africa.Firstly, it is difficult to generalise when speaking of Africa because of the sheer size and diversity of the continent: it is diverse in culture, language, history, geological and environmental make-up, political processes and general human and demographic development. So, we can’t correctly say ‘Africa is in crisis’ because not all of Africa is in ‘crisis’, although much of sub-Saharan Africa is or has experienced the difficulties of famine raised in this essay.

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