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Famine in the Horn of Africa — Back to the Future

August 2011

Nearly 30 years ago the world was shocked by images of famine and hunger in the Horn of Africa. Those images inspired a tremendous outpouring of generosity among ordinary people everywhere, and spurred a generation of activists working to end hunger. We learnt a lot from that experience, but not enough — especially in the halls of power, whether those be in Washington, various European and African capitals or in places like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The same man-made policies inflicted on Ethioipa and other countries then, have been inflicted on Somalia and its neighbors now. As economist Amartya Sen has shown, many, if not almost all, famines are man-made. Most often, famine in the modern era is the result of distant dogmatic policies that end self-reliance and sovereignty rather than hunger.

It is much easier to point fingers at inefficient, unresponsive and authoritarian governments in Africa (and yes, there are those) and blame “failed states,” “natural disasters” and sometimes, even terrorism and religious fundamentalism than to hold accountable policy-makers aided by lobbyists in DC, London, Berlin and elsewhere. Grassroots International’s ally the Oakland Institute’s policy director Frederic Mousseau has shown how institutions like the World Bank are responsible for the famine in the Horn of Africa through policies and conditions they have demanded and imposed on countries like Somalia. Our colleagues at the Charity and Security Network (Grassroots is a member) have shown how U.S. policies have created a climate of fear in terms of organizations (and individuals) being able to respond effectively in times of crises in areas that are politically unstable or sensitive such as Somalia, or the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.

When aid does flow in the face of these disasters it largely flows to big organizations that have a lot in terms of big bureacracies and little in terms of trusted relationships with on-the-ground progressive groups. Some years ago, when the South Asian tsunami hit, Grassroots’ former executive director Tim Wise wrote a piece that we then republished after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and it is applicable in this instance as well, about what progressives ought to do to respond. In fact, nearly 28 years ago Grassroots was formed to respond to crises in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East — crises that were fomented in large part by outside forces. Today Grassroots does not have a program in the Horn — we had to end our Eritrea program in 2005 as that country’s government became increasingly repressive and authoritarian, and supporting groups there would have been tantamount to supporting that government — but we work with allied organizations in the US that have programs in the region, and, importantly, whose work we respect.

For those Grassroots International supporters and friends who wish to make a difference in addressing the Horn of Africa famine, we urge you to consider making a donation to the following organizations:

American Jewish World Service

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Global Fund for Women

Action Aid USA

And for the longer term, we urge you to continually hold our elected officials, our policymakers, our corporations and the international institutions we influence accountable. Else, we will continue to go back to the future to confront new man-made disasters.


Photo by Dan Connell of famine in the Horn of Africa, 1985.

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