Meanwhile in the Horn of Africa…

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 11, 2011

Since England was on fire (perhaps still is, in a certain sense) and the financial markets are in trouble, we may be forgetting that a human disaster is taking place in Eastern Africa, where millions of people are suffering from famines. A photo series in the New York Times makes visual how horrendous the situation is. These pictures are from Somalia, which is for a range of reasons probably the worst situation of all countries in the Horn of Africa where people are suffering from hunger, but that’s little consolation. I recall famines in Ethiopia and neighboring countries ever since my childhood, and it is depressing to see them returning again and again, leaving one to feel rather powerless about what, if anything, one can contribute to providing a sustainable solution to this.

Famines are horrible, and are made worse by war, lawlessness, bad or nonexisting governance, and population growth (there is some accessible background material at the BBC Africa sites). These aspects make it harder to think of solutions to prevent this from happening yet again in the future, but that is not the worry of people currently starving. They need food, water and medical care, and they need it now. But once these horrible pictures get off our screens again, and the people who are now starving are either buried or are trying to rebuild their lives, we should not forget returning to searching for a sustainable solution to global poverty reduction/elimination. Let’s invest more in that discussion here on CT (to be continued).



afinetheorem 08.11.11 at 5:41 pm

As bad as this famine is, when it comes to long-term solutions, I think we’ve found it. The past decade was, in percentage terms, the largest increase in material welfare in poor countries in the history of mankind. Third world growth was almost universal, not solely restricted to resource-based economies. Places like Mozambique and Rwanda are, though still poor, utterly unrecognizable if you were there 20 years ago. Democratization, though still limited, is evident to a greater extent in poor countries than ever before. I believe life expectancy and infant mortality in third world countries are also at all time lows, and population growth has tailed off in wide swathes of the world as well.

I don’t mean any of this as rose-colored market cheerleading, but there is a tendency to view the third world as a basket case, and the past couple decades have really put the lie to that claim. Economic growth in poor countries is a wonderful thing, and we oughtn’t focus only on the (thankfully rarer and rarer) bad times.


afinetheorem 08.11.11 at 5:57 pm

(and of course it’s the infant mortality that’s at an all time low; life expectancy has gone the other direction!)


Lemuel Pitkin 08.11.11 at 7:25 pm

Given that pretty much all of these problems can be traced back to previous European efforts to bring better governance to Africa, maybe the best thing to do would be to leave the poor continent alone.


LFC 08.11.11 at 8:20 pm

a sustainable solution to global poverty reduction/elimination. Let’s invest more in that discussion here on CT
Agreed. And I would add that for every attention-generating famine or emergency, there are millions of preventable poverty-related deaths which occur every year without much media attention or comment.

Economic growth in poor countries is a wonderful thing
How the benefits of that growth are distributed is also important, and here I suspect the picture is less rosy than ‘afinetheorem’ suggests. Mozambique and Rwanda may have made strides, but my impression is that the situation in e.g. South Africa or Nigeria (to mention two large countries), in terms of poverty, unemployment etc, has not improved much in the recent past. (I’m not an Africa expert however).


Watson Ladd 08.11.11 at 8:27 pm

Let’s all take a look at what the World Bank says here.

Interestingly rising incomes are not having the effects on health indicators we would expect them to have. Hunger and malnutrition in particular has decreased but not as much as income has increased. This is probably because entry into the cash economy involves no longer practicing subsistance agriculture.


hartal 08.11.11 at 9:28 pm


Matt 08.11.11 at 9:29 pm

Cuba sits 58 places higher than South Africa in the UNDP’s Human Development Indicators ranking. South Africa has nearly twice the GDP per capita (PPP) but mean adult schooling is 2 years less and life expectancy at birth is 27 (!) years less. This comparison is both enlightening and depressing. South Africa is still an extremely unequal society after 17 years of democracy. Democracy doesn’t always defeat inequality, although in theory it should be the easiest thing in the world. Enough inequality can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory no matter how big the pie gets.


eilis 08.11.11 at 9:48 pm

An interesting point, I think, is that the gap between where Cuba ranks in terms of GDP per capita, and where in ranks in terms of HDI is bigger than any other country – most countries are within a few spots on either index, but Cuba has a huge gap. Bang for buck, etc…


LFC 08.11.11 at 9:55 pm

Watson Ladd @5
You link to a World Bank ’08 report saying that some of the Millennium Development Goals will not be met. Relevant to mention in this context that some of those goals have been quietly diluted (the targets lowered); see e.g. T. Pogge on this in Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (2010).


soru 08.11.11 at 10:05 pm

Dropping gdp/head below what your HDI could support is a pretty easy trick, given the political will. It’s the other way round that’s tricky…


Nur al cubicle 08.11.11 at 11:43 pm

The islamic Courts were what that country needed and the USA foolishly destroyed them


joel hanes 08.12.11 at 1:37 am

famines in Ethiopia and neighboring countries ever since my childhood

Eritrea has a very high population growth rate; Ethiopias also ranks high, though not as high.

This seems to me to be a mistake.


afinetheorem 08.12.11 at 2:05 am


The situation in South Africa perhaps not, but Nigeria is outright booming. Good governance, relatively, the past few years, plus lots of resource money, and better economic policies have led to one of the fastest growing economies in the world as of late.


actio 08.12.11 at 8:52 am

“Famines are horrible, and are made worse by war, lawlessness, bad or nonexisting governance, and population growth” … and man made climate change, chiefly caused by actions by people in the richer parts of the world and chiefly affecting people already in a dire situation.


ajay 08.12.11 at 8:56 am

Famines are horrible, and are made worse by war, lawlessness, bad or nonexisting governance, and population growth

Minor quibble: I’d argue that Somalia is not short on governance. There are lots of people there exerting political power over other people. It’s short on statehood, but that’s different. It’s also short on good governance, but that’s different again…


J. Otto Pohl 08.12.11 at 10:22 am

I wish people would not generalize about Africa. It is a very large and diverse continent and a lot of its people are richer than many people in Asia. There is no famine where I am living. In fact obesity is on the rise. In terms of percentage of GDP Ghana is growing even faster than Nigeria.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.12.11 at 11:19 am

Thanks all, for these points and for keeping the discussion productive.

LFC (@4) is right about the distribution of growth being key. If the goal is poverty reduction, then one needs pro-poor growth. If growth instead comes from economic activity that only benefits the already better off, and/or foreign investors and a very small group of laborers (who are not necessarily the poorest) in the poor country, then there will be growth, but hardly any poverty reduction.

Actio (@14): thanks for linking. I have been thinking about for a while, and have found arguments against some of my initial intuitive resistance against it. But I think that topic deserves a separate post, which you’ll get from me.
But: I fail to see how high fertility rates (which together with lower mortality rates cause population growth) can be blamed on the rich countries. Could you please explain more?


ajay 08.12.11 at 12:06 pm

17.2: I think that’s a bracketing error. Probably “chiefly caused by actions by people in the richer parts of the world, etc” refers only to “man made climate change” and not to “war, lawlessness, bad or nonexisting governance, and population growth”.


Anon this time 08.12.11 at 12:53 pm

I fail to see how high fertility rates (which together with lower mortality rates cause population growth) can be blamed on the rich countries.

This is not my field so I defer to the people who know much more about it than I do. But I’d guess that actions like the US’s vocal and noisy withdrawal of funding from the United Nations Population Fund for most of the 2000-2010 decade have some affect on fertility rates.


ajay 08.12.11 at 1:28 pm

And one would hope that foreign aid from rich countries to poor countries has had some effect on mortality rates (especially things like vaccinations). But blaming rich countries for this would be a bit perverse. Hence, 18.


roac 08.12.11 at 2:45 pm

I have an excellent book about Somalia from the ’40s, written by a Canadian woman named Margaret Laurence, whose engineer husband was building catchbasins to try and alleviate the effects of drought. (I forget who was paying him, probably a UN agency.) The author put a lot of effort into understanding the Somalis, and despised most of the British colonials who had no particular interest in them beyond making them do as they were told. (The third ethnic group that comes into the narrative is the omnipresent Italian ex-POWs who were providing most of the colony’s skilled labor.)

Anyway, the major takeaway was that drought had been killing off large chunks of the Somali population at regular intervals for as long as anyone could remember. The US title of the book is New Wind in a Dry Land; in Britain, IIRC, it was published as The Prophet’s Camel Bell. Unfortunately it is quite a scarce item; only a couple of other people have registered it on Librarything.


roac 08.12.11 at 3:59 pm

PS: It turns out that Margaret Laurence went on to write some well-respected fiction.


Omega Centauri 08.13.11 at 1:32 am

Once you start mixing sustainable with these sorts of situations, then the whole horror of Malthusianism rears its ugly head. Once average human suffering over a long enough timespan, its easy to come to some rather depressing conclusions. And issues, like if the population is only controlled by deprivation (a la Malthus), is it better to have a constant carrying capacity, or to have periodic crises that reduce the population to well below the average carrying capacity, followed by several years (or decades) of relative abundance?

The only way out, is to come up with another way of controlling the population, and then keep it well below the system carrying capacity. We’d hoped we could do that via the demographic transition, whereby fertility drops once prosperity and security reach a certain level. But, is that hope realistic, or have we lost the race between population growth, economic advance, and resource depletion? If you conclude things have reached that point, then things get really grim.


actio 08.13.11 at 1:01 pm

@17 @18: ajay is right about my confusing comma. I meant that climate change is primarily caused by people not in risk of famine but climate change is a partial cause of famine. So both a duty to aid AND a duty to repair past wrongdoing compel us to help those presently in dire need.
Ingrid: I look forward to a post on GWC!


Nick L 08.15.11 at 9:02 am

It’s well-enough known that the best solution to the risk of famine is democratic government. Yes, Sen’s claim about this relationship can be questioned, but it is clear that the connection is strong. Famines are social disasters as much as they are natural disasters. Minimally responsive government can prevent mass starvation.

Cuba is given as an example of a nation which punches above its economic weight in terms of human development (although it might be said that this shows that Cubans are poorer than they might otherwise be), but Kerala provides another good example. Both show that economic wealth is not necessary to achieve a basic level of human development, just institutions geared to promoting public goods.

Where you have a state with sufficient capacity to both provide public goods to rural areas and to compel the wealthy to pay a share of taxes, it’s possible to tackle poverty. An excellent way to do this appears to be direct redistribution, of which education is one form as it builds up the stock of human capital amongst the poor. Even better than free education for all is Brazil’s Bolsa Familia scheme which provides a direct cash transfer to poor households so long as they send they children to school, get them vaccinated and so on. As a result, extreme poverty is on course to be eliminated in Brazil.

The essentials of how to give people a minimally decent standard of living seem to be well understood in practice by relief agencies, development NGOs and non-predatory governments. This is why there is a global convergence in basic indicators of human development (a much faster convergence than the modest and ambiguous convergence in incomes). But, as a non-Africanist, the problem in Sub-Saharan Africa is that most ‘states’ barely control the capital, much less the rural hinterland. Rwanda is making strides because the genocide and civil war put a unified, competent political party in power. The RPF have subsequently played a statebuilding role, putting Rwanda on a very different trajectory to the ‘state-eating’ path of most of the continent.

But where is such an impetus going to come from elsewhere in Africa? Weak democracies propped up by foreign donors will have shallow roots in their own societies, as will kleptocratic dictatorships who rely on the rents of statehood and export of primary commodities. So the problem appears to me not to be a technical one, but a political one.


J. Otto Pohl 08.15.11 at 12:02 pm

Well sure enough, I express a wish for people not to generalize about Africa and Nick L. comes along to do exactly that. Ghana’s democracy is not weak or propped up by foreign money. While some countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Congo have the problems Nick L. lists, I am not sure they constitute a majority of the continent. Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and others are all doing quite well.


Nick L 08.15.11 at 4:15 pm

The rest of the discussion was of sufficient level of generality that I thought it might be worth contributing something of what recent comparative research tells us about the steps needed to combat serious poverty and maldevelopment. Rwanda’s recent experience makes comparison with its continental neighbours relevant, although I accept I probably drew the distinction a bit too sharp and lumped different cases together a bit crudely (similar things could in fairness be said about weaker states in other regions). But listing Nigeria and SA as nations doing ‘quite well’ begs the question’for whom?’. According to a quick googling, the unemployment rate in South Africa is about 25%.


Ingrid Robeyns 08.15.11 at 8:13 pm

But listing Nigeria and SA as nations doing ‘quite well’ begs the question’for whom?’.

Indeed. There are huge social and economic problems in South-Africa, and even in Namibia, which doesn’t have some of the problems that SA faces (like the huge crime rates), there are vast numbers of poor people living in dire poverty (though I’ve learned, when I visited the country in May, that these tend to escape the eye of the visitor, since they live in villages where no visitor comes.) These countries may not risk famines, but they do have a significant size of the population in persistent poverty.


J. Otto Pohl 08.16.11 at 10:35 am

The US also has a significant number of people living in persistent poverty, but it does not get tarred with the same negative stereotypes that people apply to all of Africa based upon some cases. I live in Ghana and the reality on the ground and the image of a generalized Africa projected by the media in the US are radically different. There is no famine here. There is no political instability here. There is a democratic government. The economy is growing rapidly. I would rate both higher education and medical coverage here as overall superior to what exists in the US and comparable to what exists in the UK. I can not speak from personal experience for other areas of Africa, but Ghana is doing quite well in comparison to other countries I have lived in. These are the US (no jobs for history lecturers, no medical coverage and high crime), the UK (no jobs for history lecturers and riots in the streets), and Kyrgyzstan (too much to list in a blog post).

Comments on this entry are closed.