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Famine in Ethiopia

By Matthew Yglesias on October 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

"Famine in Ethiopia"

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Ethiopia is in the grips of a new food crisis that the UN World Food Program says will require $285 million in international assistance over the next six months to avert mass starvation.

I don’t think we should construe the existence of famine conditions in the Horn of Africa (there are problems beyond Ethiopia) as a reason not to send additional troops to Afghanistan. But I do think it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t look at individual elements of our foreign policy in isolation, or see the Afghanistan situation with tunnel-vision. Is there some reasonable calculus of risks in which it makes sense to spend tens of billions of dollars on prevent a situation of chaos in Central Asia but doesn’t make sense to spend a fraction of that in the Horn of Africa? Alternatively, if the US lacks the tools and skills to solve profound governance and economic problems in the Horn of Africa why do we have the needed skills and tools to solve them in Central Asia?

Martin Plaut, the BBC’s Africa analyst, has this to say about the role of bad public policy in contributing to the situation:

There is no doubt poor and erratic rains have hit the Ethiopian harvest. But large parts of the country have not been hit by drought. So why the current crisis?

It is in part the result of policies designed to keep farmers on the land, which belongs to the state and cannot be sold. So farms are passed down the generations, divided and sub-divided. Many are so small and the land so overworked that it could not provide for the families that work it even with normal rainfall.

At present only 17% of Ethiopia’s 80 million people live in urban areas. Keeping people in the countryside is a way of preventing large-scale unemployment and the unrest that this might cause.

This does seem like a system that will make it very hard to increase agricultural productivity. Meanwhile, Oxfam has an excellent new report out called “Band Aids and Beyond” about the need for donors to do more in the way of giving communities the tools they need to prevent food crises, rather than just throwing them aid after disaster strikes. If I may toot my colleagues’ horn for a moment, CAP had a report on a similar, though somewhat broader, theme “The Price of Prevention: Getting Ahead of Global Crises” back in November.

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