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

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.

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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.

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