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How to ease famine in Africa

Handing out money or food vouches will stop people starving and boost businesses at the same time

By on Friday, 8 July 2011

Dead cattle in Kenya: more than 10 million people are affected by the drought (AP Photo/ Sayyid Azim)

Dead cattle in Kenya: more than 10 million people are affected by the drought (AP Photo/ Sayyid Azim)

Famine has come to the Horn of Africa once more, because of the failure of seasonal rains. Once more, because this is an event of depressing regularity. As Mike Pflanz points out in a recent article in the Daily Telegraph:

Urgent appeals for aid to east Africa were made in 2009, 2008 and 2006, and since the efforts of Bob Geldof and friends in 1984, there have been at least 60 major food crises in Africa.

When I lived in Africa I remember at least one severe drought that led to starvation in Northern Kenya, and one other less severe drought, both in the space of four years. But these droughts may be the norm rather than the exception, some scientists believe.

So, what is to be done? Well, it might be worthwhile paying a little attention to other drought-afflicted countries, such as Australia, the United States and Israel. That’s right – like Kenya all three have relatively fertile zones, but large arid or semi-arid regions as well. Australia is the driest country on earth; but there are fundamental differences between Australia, let’s say, and the countries of the Horn of Africa, and these explain why drought in Australia has never led to famine. Australia has road and rail links that enable food to be transported from areas of relative abundance to areas of shortage. Australia can import food from abroad, and has the money to do so. Australia has a social welfare system. Australia is politically stable. So, although Australia has severe droughts, these crises never turn into catastrophes.

In the Horn of Africa it is different. Most regions have no effective government – Somalia is notorious for this, but the north-east of Kenya is pretty bad too. Many of the worst affected areas are so wracked with violence from warlord-led gangs and the shifta (as local ruffians are called) that this must disrupt the lines of supply. War is always one of the major causes of famine. Many areas are inaccessible, because there are no roads or railways; supplies may be flown in, but local distribution still remains difficult. And then of course, the supplies that are flown in, donated by international charities, may well be stolen and sold in local markets, where they distort the local economy.

Giving food intended for the starving, food which may sadly never reach them, is the standard response of the developed world, though success has been patchy to put it mildly. The latest initiative, described by Pflanz, seems much more straightforward and likely of success:

In Kenya, Save The Children is giving people vouchers to buy food in local markets. Several other aid groups are piloting similar schemes, some of them simply handing out cash to people who need food, or transferring it to their mobile phones using the country’s wildly popular Mpesa mobile money system. At a stroke, this boosts businesses and cuts out the sometimes months-long lag between food aid being bought, shipped and distributed by the big international agencies.

“If you had people needing extra food in the West, you wouldn’t give them food parcels, you’d pay money into their bank accounts,” says a veteran British aid worker in Nairobi. “The US gives food stamps. Why has it taken so long to come around to the same thinking in Africa?”

This method not only tackles the immediate problem – having nothing to eat – but also tackles the underlying problem, that of an underdeveloped economic infrastructure. If people have money to buy food you can be sure that some bright spark will scent a business opportunity and be there to sell it to them.

Incidentally, there is no reason why the Kenyan government itself should not do this. They have, relatively speaking, plenty of money – enough certainly to spend on a range of vanity projects.

And while they are at it, they could also build a few roads, to stimulate the internal market, couldn’t they? This would enable the relative surplus in areas around Nairobi and Kisumu to be sold in areas afflicted by dearth. Too bad that unofficial guesstimates indicate that 80 per cent of all money that passes through official hands in Kenya never makes it to its final legitimate destination, but is somehow “lost” along the way.

But solutions for Kenya are relatively easy to think up, though difficult to implement; Somalia is another case entirely, as all attempts even to create a functioning government over the last two decades have met with resounding failure.

So what, then, can we ourselves do in the short term? One way to help famine victims in East Africa is to make a donation to Save the Children or some other reputable charity. Or else one could make contact with a priest or a nun working in one of the affected areas, and send them a donation direct, with instructions that the money is to be given to the hungry.

  • RJ

    The Little Way Association (Sacred Heart House, 119 Cedars Road, Clapham Common, London SW4 OPR) gives direct to missionaries, so that seems like a good way of avoiding corruption and cutting down on administration costs They mention in their ads that they forward donations without deduction.

  • Katie

    This will never change unless they stop having children they can not feed. The cycle continues.

  • Anonymous

    It actually would change if the developed world stopped gorging itself on the food that these people need. The problem is simple: half of the world has too little and half has too much; the solution is equally obvious.

  • ms catholic state

    It’s not people having children that causes drought.  How ridiculous.  I guess we have too many politicians who think like you…..therefore are unable to stop the problem.  Maybe you would like them to contracept themselves to extinction would you!  Like the West is doing! 

    You have already been given the reasons for this catastrophe!  Don’t blame children.  That’s nasty.

  • Peter

    Agreed, a nonsense comment.  By the same ridiculous reasoning, one can ask why the West doesn’t stop spending billions on keeping its people living as long as posible and instead send the money to the dying children of Arica?  That would solve the problem overnight!

  • ms catholic state

    It is worse if people stop having children…..then they will NEVER have a future.  Children are not the cause of poverty.

  • Parasum

    That would require a very different set of trading & economic arrangements – and people in the developed world would not stand for having a lowe standard of living. Besides, there is real poverty in Britain: we need to get our own ecionomy and siociety in order before “helping” (?) others. And no matter what we do, Africa is going  to be a corrupt, God-forsaken Hell-hole as long as its politicians are venal savages – IOW, there is, sad to say, not a hope in Hell of change for the better.

    It would be better to for us wash our hands of Africa – let them solve their own own problems, just as they had to do for centuries before they encountered foreigners. We have more than enough problems of our own, without throwing away even more billions of pounds into a bottomless pit. Wasting gigantic amounts of money is what Labour does best – we need to break with that, ASAP, now. It’s not kind to waste billions  in “aid” – that merely enriches the obscenely wealthy, but it doesn’t help a soul.  Pouring away billions is an attempt by the developed countries to salve their unquiet consciences – nothing more. Of course, if its moral to prop up pondscum like  Mugabe & his kind, then by all means, let’s waste money on dirtbags like him. But is that moral ? It’s far better to seem like a heartless so-and-so, than to be foolish enough to waste money on “aid” that might actually do some good if we spent it putting our own house in order. Prolonging Africa’s agony by giving it more and more money for the means with which to blow its brains out is to be complicit in suicide, and that’s disagraceful.

  • Parasum

    BTW – is there no connection between the politics of dictators in Africa, and the ruinous state of the countries they wreck ? Communist dictatorships lead to famine – Mugabe (for example) is merely imitating Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin. This is perfectly sensible, if those against the regime have no rights but are merely trash to be disposed of ASAP. Those who oppose the regime/Party/Chairman/Great Leader, don’t get fed. Simples.

    The problem is the “revolting plague” (as Pius XI called it) of atheistic Communism. 

  • ms catholic state

    6 out of the top 12 fastest growing economies are in Africa…thanks to their higher birthrates among other factors like trade linds with China. It is the West that is in decline…..and Westerners are in denial.  Especially North America and Europe…..where we seem to think that secular democracy…and nothing else…. is the magic key to a glorious prosperous future!  Not so I’m afraid to say.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    You are right that children are not the cause of poverty – and the link between population growth and poverty is by and large a myth propagated by population alarmists. In fact, the longest period of relative growth in prosperity in Western countries coincided with the largest growth in population.  Similarly, the predictable decline of Western dominance will coincide with a decreasing Western population.

    Nonetheless, it’s wrong to have children one cannot feed.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I don’t agree that Africa is always going to be ” a corrupt, God-forsaken Hell-hole” and I would argue that Africa is on the way up whereas Europe is on its way down. In fact, although we don’t see it in the media, there are a whole lot of positives going on in Africa right now – almost none of it thanks to NGOs and foreign aid. Although your description of most politicians as venal savages is spot on.

    You’re right that the U.K. and others ought to put their own society in order before “helping” others, however. Although I’ll be keen to point out that most of the “help” that Africa gets is not done in good faith. As Fr. AL-S has written several times, much of the aid doesn’t get where it helps people. I’m not sure this is an unintended consequence, however. I think it’s part of an elaborate strategy to deceive public opinion on both sides – the ignorant African population is deceived into thinking it is being helped and the ignorant Western population is deceived into thinking it is helping. All the while, the moneymen get richer, and poverty – both moral and financial – increases to the advantage of the large aid/NGO industry.

    Africa’s problem is primarily a moral one and I’m not sure we can ever solve moral problems with money – especially when this is done in bad faith. Given the sort of (lack of) morality espoused by NGOs, it’s difficult to see how they could even be part of the solution.

    So I’ll definitely second that “It would be better to for us wash our hands of Africa – let them solve
    their own own problems, just as they had to do for centuries before they
    encountered foreigners.”

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I’m not sure which part of Mugabe would count as communist.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    A rather good article, Fr. AL-S. I have quite extensive knowledge of Kenya, and I’m glad you’ve lived there because you seem to exhibit a better understanding of the situation than (sadly) many of those who are actually given a position to influence things. That Kenyan politicians always seem to find money for vanity projects would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so dire (although European politicians are prone to the same vanities too, but the stakes are not often as high).

    There are many roads being built – thanks in large part to the Chinese – and that will go some way towards economic improvement. Of course, there are (self-serving) political reasons why roads were not built for a long time in the fertile regions around Nairobi. I would take “unofficial guesstimates” with a large pinch of salt though, because these are made by people who have an often illegitimate interest in channelling money through their own NGOs instead – and we ought not to support foreign NGOs which weaken the role of the local governments unless we’re prepared to do so in Western countries also.

    The idea to bypass bureaucracy by having food vouchers is a most splendid one, however, and it’s surprising (yet symbolic) that it has not been done before. It both stimulates the local economy and simultaneously gives people a measure of control over their lives – and both can only be considered good things.

    At the same time – as has been pointed out by others -, many of the fastest growing economies are in Africa. For that reason, if poverty is increasing simultaneously with growth, then at the very least we need to accept that much of that poverty is due to the moral poverty of both politicians and the electorate which elects them.

  • Peter

    “Nonetheless, it’s wrong to have children one cannot feed”

    According to Mary’s Meals it costs £9.40 per school year to give a meal a day to an African child.  How much does a hip operation cost for an elderly person, £10,000?

    While no one for one moment wishes to deny an elderly person a new hip, the simple fact that the cost of the operation could feed over 1000 children in Africa for a year would make me quite ashamed to utter a statement like the above.

  • Anonymous

    I did not mention the aid budget and you are right that the “foreign aid” of the West does not work at all. Equally, however, if you aren’t prepared to give up the kind of lifestyle of the West (which is growing more obscene by the day given the decline of Christendom even in places such as Spain and Ireland) to prevent a child in Africa from starvation and are simply content to leave them to starve then what makes you any better than the dictators or the obscenely rich of those countries? What I meant was the money being transferred by the Church to those who need it away from those of us who expect to have all that we want and regard it as a moral outrage and a violation of our human rights if we cannot have the latest mobile phone or apple’s latest creation. Given our lifestyles in which we expect everything and deny others even a small share of it I almost look forward to the day when the oil runs out; at least then we will have to learn that we cannot simply look to ourselves. Certainly we must also care for those in poverty here but that and more would be possible if some of our obscene businessmen and bankers were prepared to go without one year’s million pound profit; a little of that could mean a lot for the poor of both Europe and Africa.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I can’t see what the two have to do with one another, to be honest.

    The Christian way of life requires sacrifices, and one of those sacrifices is not having children if one can’t afford them, or if one can’t provide a loving home for them – which in true Christian spirit would obviously involve some form or abstinence and chastity. Even if children are gifts from God, we have to accept that sometimes we have to deem ourselves unworthy of those gifts.

    I don’t like the idea of infantilising Africans. We’re all held to account for our own actions. I hardly see any Christian organisation promoting irresponsible childbearing in the West. Why would you demand less from Africans? Unless, of course, you’re claiming that they’re not capable of the same sort of self-control that you demand of yourself.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    First of all, the West doesn’t care about African lives, and it’s difficult from historical evidence to argue that it ever did. But even if it did, one would have to weigh up the benefits of sending billions abroad versus spending them at home. Plus, given the anti-human view expressed by the European political class, sending money to poorer countries might well leave the world with a bigger problem than it had to begin with.

    The problem is that it’s difficult to not save lives at home (on people we know and see every day) – even if it costs obscene amounts – while sending money abroad (to people we don’t know and will probably never meet). Also, unless we have an unlimited budget, then it’s always problematic to draw the line on what should be treated and what shouldn’t be and neglecting the elderly to save lives elsewhere has its own moral implications.

    Just a passing comment though….Many rich countries spends billions not just to keep people living, but in many cases just to keep them existing. Even there it’s difficult to know exactly where one should draw a moral line between keeping people alive for humanity’s benefit versus keeping them alive for statistical benefits (so the government can provide jobs and claim you have the best healthcare). Also, if we make that division, we leave ourselves vulnerable to a purely utilitarian view on life, and open to the possibility that those who are deemed unproductive or unwanted will not be looked after and might even be disposed of – whether it’s the elderly, those with disabilities, the unfortunate or the unborn.

    So it’s a minefield of issues and the only thing we can be certain of is that, to quote ‘ms catholic state’, “It’s not people having children that causes drought.”

  • kassidyk

    I was thinking about  stop wasting money in sending food or water or other short term aids! I think if they invest in longterm aids it will be better. Constructing road which will eventually create jobs and help with the transport of food from the part of the country that has to the one that hasn’t. Rail ways or pipelines with water running across the country as the place is too dry. 
    There should be a way of inventing things that could change the temperature; I think the developed countries can even create machines or a mechanism that can make the weather conditions in such countries more favorable. Instead of wasting money making research on how to create new gadgets(everyday), cars, building massive hotels and houses causing a fortune they could use that money to research on how to build water storage tanks, water pipelines, roads and railway routes. This will change those countries for good(slowly but surely). And no one can say it isnt possible because they have built pipelines in African countries for their petrol so i dont get why they cant do that with water.Claiming to send food all the time or donating is not a good investment( in my point of view).

  • kassidyk

    I was thinking all these helping organisations stop wasting money in sending food or water or other short term aids! I think if they invest in longterm aids it will be better. Constructing road which will eventually create jobs and help with the transport of food from the part of the country that has to the one that hasn’t. Rail ways or pipelines with water running across the country as the place is too dry. There should be a way of inventing things that could change the temperature; I think the developed countries can even create machines or a mechanism that can make the weather conditions in such countries more favorable. Instead of wasting money making research on how to create new gadgets(everyday), cars, building massive hotels and houses causing a fortune they could use that money to research on how to build water storage tanks, water pipelines, roads and railway routes. This will change those countries for good(slowly but surely). And no one can say it isnt possible because they have built pipelines in African countries for their petrol so i dont get why they cant do that with water.Claiming to send food all the time or donating is not a good investment( in my point of view)

  • Parasum

    That is a very good idea – except we might as well burn money for all the good it does when it is sent to the insatiable abyss that is Africa. It’s is a failed continent. The news is of nothing but war, famine, corruption, injustice, torture, fanaticism, chronic instability, eternal drought & plague & war… and there is no reason to think it will ever be any less ghastly than it now is.

    It’s grossly irresponsible to throw away billions in “aid” that merely prolongs people’s misery and fattens dictators. We need our money in our country, for our social troubles, which are not slight, but are at least not wholly insoluble.  Those who want to waste money should burn it, or turn it into cat-litter, which would at least be useful; not waste it by sending to prop up dying or vampirical countries that are incapable of doing anything except suck up money from those foolish enough to feed their addiction to self-destruction.

  • Parasum

    They seem not to be capable of self-control. It’s beside the point whether to say this is PC or not; if they are not capable of self-control, then that should be said. To fail to say so, is to further an attractive & popular illusion; but illusions are a useless foundation for practical action. Unfortunately, it is all too human to prefer delightful fictions to unflattering truths. If they are less intelligent than Caucasians – as was suggested a little while ago IIRC  – that too should be said, without fear. “The Christian way of life” should not require the propagation of popular fictions about other ethnic groups – only the truth will do, popular or unpopular.

    Infantilising them is indeed a rotten idea – & PC nonsense that forbids unpopular statements about them, infantilises everyone.

  • Parasum

    His antecedents ?