Hunger and Famine

One of the most enduring modern images of Africa is that of a land plagued by hunger and famine. Pictures of Africans starving during droughts and of hungry REFUGEES fleeing civil war appear in the news media every few years. While hunger and famine are ongoing problems for many Africans, their severity, causes, and solutions are often misunderstood or misrepresented.

Realities of Famine

Although accurate information about famine in Africa is difficult to come by, a number of conclusions can be drawn. One is that most famine deaths in Africa occur among children. Famine also claims the lives of more men than women. Another conclusion is that the principal cause of death is not starvation but disease. Weakened by hunger, people are more likely to die from measles, malaria, and other diseases. One common response to famine in Africa is mass migration. When famine strikes a region, millions of Africans move in search of food. Finally, although thousands of Africans die in famines, the numbers produced by international organizations and other groups are often exaggerations. Still, the problem of famine is very real in Africa, and its effects are widespread.

Views About Famine

European colonizers blamed the continent's frequent famines on what they called the “backwardness” of Africa. Pointing to the relative absence of famine from 1945 to 1970, colonial rulers argued that their “enlightened” policies had put an end to famines caused by the inability of local populations to manage food resources effectively.

When droughts and famines struck the continent in the 1970s, some Africans blamed capitalism. They argued that capitalist systems put in place during the colonial era disrupted traditional economies, which were well adapted to local conditions. Historical research does not support either view. Records from the precolonial period show that African societies have long suffered from famine and hunger.

Causes of Famine

A variety of factors contribute to famine in Africa, and one of the most important of these is war. War leads to famine by destroying crops, fields, and other resources. Armies promote famine by consuming available resources. Military strategies also play a role. One common tactic is to lay siege to a town, cutting off its food supplies. In some cases defending forces may restrict the flow of food to punish people believed to be sympathetic to the enemy or to drive up the price of food and profit from it.

Another military strategy that has contributed to famine involves forcibly resettling rural populations. Local civilians thought to be aiding the enemy may be moved to areas where their actions and movements can be controlled. This drives people off agricultural lands, prevents herders from finding pasture for livestock, and disrupts local trade networks. Such resettlement damages the rural economy, forcing people to rely on the charity of the groups in charge. This particular strategy has been applied widely throughout Africa in recent years.

A second major cause of famine is crop failure. Short-term environmental crises such as drought may combine with other economic problems to create long-term famine. Nations with weak economic development, limited social services, and poor transportation infrastructure are particularly at risk when drought or other environmental problems occur. Among the hardest hit are poor rural dwellers with limited resources, households headed by females, unskilled laborers, and minority groups. In some places minority groups become targets of government policies that contribute to famine. For example, many African governments have restricted the movements of pastoralists and taken away their land rights, depriving them of their usual methods of obtaining food.

A more recent cause of famine in Africa is the emergence of rulers whose main goal is to plunder the country of its wealth. In some cases these countries devote little or no effort to providing basic services for the people. In others, armed factions compete with one another for control of resources and territory. In SOMALIA, local warlords survive by looting, smuggling, and forcing individuals to give them money, land, or resources in return for protection.

Responses to Famine

African governments have generally had little success in preventing famine. International aid agencies attempt to provide relief, but their role is limited. Food aid from such organizations reaches only about one-fifth of Africans who are in need.

During the colonial era, African governments usually responded to famine by providing employment to those struck hardest or by developing village-based relief plans. After independence, some countries felt that famine was a colonial legacy that would disappear along with colonialism. As a result, they abandoned these famine response strategies. At the same time, many new nations developed programs to deal with famine. The programs proved fairly effective in the 1970s but, for the most part, have been unable to deal with more recent famines.

Some African countries have done a much better job than others in responding to famine. BOTSWANA, for example, set up an ambitious drought relief program in the 1970s. The program has provided relief to rural populations during periods of drought and prevented the recurrence of famine, even during serious droughts. One reason for its success is Botswana's political system. As a representative democracy, the country has political groups that pay attention to people's needs because they want to win elections and power. Dictators and military leaders, by contrast, do not depend on elections to stay in power.

Most Africans continue to rely on their own survival skills to deal with famine. Such skills include turning to wild food supplies, selling personal possessions and livestock, and moving to find new food or work. Many of these strategies, such as selling livestock, make the people poorer in the long run. Others, such as cutting and selling firewood, damage the natural environment. Some people respond to famine by taking up banditry or raiding, but this contributes to conflict, insecurity, and other problems. Unfortunately, there seem to be few other responses to famine in Africa at the present time. As a result, the prospect of frequent and severe famines remains a continuing threat to the continent and its people. (See also Agriculture, Deserts and Drought, Disease, Ecosystems, United Nations in Africa.)