Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Wed, Mar 8th, 2017

The Politics of Famine

In the year 1798, just at the start of the French Revolution, an English parson named Thomas Malthus published a book that would have major repercussions, including influence on a young Charles Darwin working on what he came to call “natural selection.” The title of the book was An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. At the time Malthus acknowledged that his view of human life had “a melancholy hue.” What Malthus could readily see of a major increase in population growth in his native England led him to conclude that the future had a problem of mathematical danger: population seemed to be producing at a geometric rate (one both doubling and troubling), while food production was only arithmetic, small increments that eventually would not meet the needs of hungry mouths. Malthus can be forgiven for not being a prophet of the eventual technological improvements which have transformed agriculture into an industry that produces far more than he could have managed. But the naysayers of his pessimistic view of the future miss an important point: famine is not simply about the lack of food, but the political manipulation of who receives and who does not receive food.

Thomas Malthus, 1766-1834

In terms of the ability to produce food worldwide, there should be no famine anywhere on earth. The amount of food wasted daily in the developed world, on top of the high levels of consumption that have created an obesity crisis, would no doubt alone feed those who are barely able to survive, if at all. But there is famine and it is spreading. The new U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, recently visited Somalia, where 6 million Somalis, almost half of the country’s population, have severe food shortages. The issue here is not that there is no food to provide for them, but the fallout from devastating civil strife, drought and even the spread of cholera. A famine in the Horn of Africa in 2011 is reported to have led to the death of some 260,000 Somalis. More are dying every day. The Guardian warns that 20 million people are at risk in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen.

The severe malnutrition, especially of children, and onset of famine conditions in Yemen have received less attention than other famine areas, as has the very limited coverage of the ongoing war. Consider this recent comment from Ayman Gharaibeh, the head of UNHCR: “We used to say last year that we were in a catastrophe. Now we’ve said that it is beyond any humanitarian catastrophe that we’ve seen,” adding “there is significant famine” occurring in Yemen. The World Food Program estimates that of the almost 19 million Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance, more than 7 million are food insecure. Child nutrition is currently at one of the highest levels in the world. The limited food that does reach people is at premium prices at a time when the economy is in shambles and there are few jobs or salaries. I have heard reports that some people have boiled tree leaves in desperation. And there is cholera.

Let us take the number of 20 million people in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region facing famine and consider what could be done. Last September the Obama Administration offered to sell Saudi Arabia (one of many buyers) some $115 billion worth of weapons and military hardware. A new fighter jet, for example, would cost between $31-55 million dollars each. In addition there is the weaponry which would add more millions and the fuel and the support staff on the ground, etc. Put altogether, perhaps by buying one less fighter jet a country like Saudi Arabia could use a mere $100,000 to provide food for the Yemenis trapped in the north. Instead there is a boycott on food to areas under control of the Huthis. The armed conflict throughout the country also makes it very difficult for any food that does enter through the port of Aden to be distributed. Humanitarian aid through the Huthi-controlled port of Hodeidah is practically nil. The Yemeni men, women and children who will die from the ongoing food insecurity and famine conditions will die not because food could not be provided, but because it is denied. Politics, not a natural survival formula, is the killer.

At the start of his treatise, Parson Malthus makes the following claim: “It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal.” There has been indeed “unconceived improvement” in food production, as there has in prolonging human life, but the “perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery” continues. The stumbling block is not technology, at least not for the foreseeable future, but the immorality of political conflict. There is no small irony that citizens of Yemen, as well as Syria, are facing a food crisis at the same time as the oil-rich GCC states have a major health disaster of obesity and diabetes.

The words of Malthus serve as a fitting reminder of the ethical challenge we face knowing that such famine conditions still exist.

Yet, discouraging as the contemplation of this difficulty must be to those whose exertions are laudably directed to the improvement of the human species, it is evident that no possible good can arise from any endeavours to slur it over or keep it in the background. On the contrary, the most baleful mischiefs may be expected from the unmanly conduct of not daring to face truth because it is unpleasing. Independently of what relates to this great obstacle, sufficient yet remains to be done for mankind to animate us to the most unremitted exertion. But if we proceed without a thorough knowledge and accurate comprehension of the nature, extent, and magnitude of the difficulties we have to encounter, or if we unwisely direct our efforts towards an object in which we cannot hope for success, we shall not only exhaust our strength in fruitless exertions and remain at as great a distance as ever from the summit of our wishes, but we shall be perpetually crushed by the recoil of this rock of Sisyphus.

Note: A copy of this classic book by Malthus is available online.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.