Food speculation blamed for East Africa famine

Life is a daily struggle for survival in many parts of Africa

Millions of people in the Horn of Africa are suffering as a result of a famine caused by the worst drought for 60 years.

This content was published on November 22, 2011

But the climate is by no means the only cause of the humanitarian crisis, as aid expert Fred Lauener tells He says food speculation is also to blame.

The United Nations estimates that 13 million people, including two million children, are victims of the extraordinary drought that has struck Kenya, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia, Uganda and Djibouti.

In its latest release on the situation in the Horn of Africa, the World Health Organization says the approaching rainy season should have a positive impact on food production.

However, precipitation increases the risk of infectious diseases among the population, including malaria, dengue fever and cholera. Transport links are interrupted, making life even more difficult.

Caritas Switzerland is among the charities active in the region. Focusing on ensuring access to drinking water it runs a number of aid projects and provides emergency aid to about 240,000 people.

Lauener, a humanitarian aid consultant, says the disaster region is about the size of western Europe and access to certain areas has become impossible. The issue of drought and famine in East Africa refuses to go away. Isn’t there a risk that the western public tires of hearing about it?

Fred Lauener: News from Africa is indeed often enough bad news. Those involved in emergency aid still have to carry on their work although the wider public might be fed up. They don’ t want to hear any more about another humanitarian crisis, yet another conflict.

The result of that is visible as it has become more difficult to raise funds. It would probably be easier to get money to help a rich country outside the African continent.

Nevertheless the current situation is an exception, I have to stress that. For the first time in many years we have recorded a wave of donations. How’s that?

F. L.: Probably for the simple reason that there was extensive media coverage. And why are people still starving and dying of famine there?

F. L.: There is no simple answer. The main reason is certainly climate change. In the past there was enough water even during the dry seasons. But nowadays it can take up to three years before the next rainy period.

Without water agriculture suffers, livestock dies and the people are deprived of their main source of income.

But there is also an increasing trend towards speculation with foodstuffs. Food is held back on purpose in the hope of creating a shortage on the market and pushing up prices. Are you saying there is actually enough food?

F. L.: In every place I travelled to in Africa it was possible to get food. The point is that the prices are so exorbitant that normal people can’t afford it.

The real scandal is the speculation with food and the privatisation of resources.

The issue of famine is very complex, be it in Africa or elsewhere in the world. It is the biggest global disaster and in some ways it exceeds our capacity to help, making us feel powerless.

Life has never been easy in eastern Africa; it is a continuous struggle for survival. The famine is a deadly blow. The Millennium Goal set by the United Nations was to halve the number of famine victims by 2015. Where do we stand now?

F. L.: The target is out of reach. We need everybody to work in the same direction to achieve a tangible result. That has not happened so far.

The world appears to focus on other problems, and the industrialised states are primarily interested in saving their own skins by bailing out their banks.

But it is not all bad. In some regions of the world, notably in Asia, the situation has improved a great deal and the number of people suffering from hunger has dropped. How has the method of tackling crisis changed?

F. L.: In the past the aim was to restore the situation that existed before the crisis struck. So the water reservoirs were fixed. But they became unusable again sooner or later, which put relief efforts back to square one.

Now the focus has shifted to long-term development aid and the transfer of know-how. The goal is no longer the provision of food from outside, but to create the conditions so that the local population can earn an income and buy food.

Success is visible in those areas where this method is applied. People no longer die of famine. What does the local population expect from the international community, from donors and individuals?

F. L.: Not much, to be frank. Partly because many people on the fringes of society and in remote areas are without infrastructure.

Take conflict zones such as Somalia. The people do not expect to receive any help either from their government or from us. But they are very grateful towards us if they can get help.

Famine - Key Facts

More than 500 million people suffer from famine worldwide.

Every day an estimated 18,000 children die from hunger or malnutrition.

Several factors are to blame for this tragedy, according to the World Health Organization: Poverty, poor government policy, climate change, natural disasters and conflicts.

Switzerland has been providing emergency aid to combat hunger in the Horn of Africa since the 1990s.

In the wake of renewed conflicts in the region four years ago, Switzerland increased its humanitarian aid to Somalia and neighbouring countries.

Switzerland also boosted its financial aid and sent experts to the region following the humanitarian disaster which began to emerge last spring.

Switzerland has earmarked SFr38.5 million ($41.9 million) in aid for the region this year.

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Fred Lauener

Lauener is a consultant, author and journalist. He has a degree in intercultural communication.

He has led several projects and campaigns in Switzerland and abroad.

He is a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit and other rescue and peace promotion agencies at the foreign ministry.

As an expert he is also active in the field for non-governmental organisations.

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