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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Hungry Continent

Terence McMenamin • 30 January 2003

In the latter half of the 20th century, hunger and famine have become virtually commonplace in many parts of Africa. Perhaps the most shocking famine of recent times occurred in Ethiopia between 1984 and 1985, killing almost one million people. Despite an increased awareness of the immediacy of drought and famine, Africa currently faces a crisis more desperate than ever before, largely due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS throughout the continent.

According to the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP), there are currently 38 million people at risk of starvation in Africa. While approximately 11 million of these people are Ethiopians, the hardest hit countries are in southern Africa. The six countries most in need of aid, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, account for over 14.4 million of Africa’s hungry. Despite all of the global progress in agriculture and famine relief since the 1980s, there are several reasons why the food crisis Africa now faces will be among its most devastating, not only to Ethiopia but to the rest of the continent as well.

Among the factors that have led to the current crisis, the most obvious is weather. Over the past year, many African countries have been subject to extreme weather, varying from flooding to lengthy droughts that have weakened and destroyed crops. Some areas have experienced as many as four consecutive years of insufficient seasonal rains. The effect of these poor weather conditions has been further exacerbated by the agricultural practices currently followed throughout much of the continent. Whereas in the past, many African nations grew hardy cereals, the staple crop has, to a great extent, shifted to maize. This non-indigenous crop is rain-fed, and has a low resistance to droughts.

Poor governance has also contributed to Africa’s current dilemma. In Zambia, where about 3 million people are faced with severe hunger, the government recently turned away 50,000 tons of donated food aid. The food was rejected by President Levy Mwanawasa's government because it was genetically modified. Although there has been some controversy over GM foods, environmental concerns can be addressed through milling, and despite the presence of GM food within the American diet for the past seven years, scientists have found no conclusive evidence of harmful effects. Despite this, even while neighboring countries accepted GM food aid, the Zambian government has stuck to the precautionary principle, accepting the risk that its people may starve rather than allowing GM food to be distributed.

Another example of poor governance is found in Zimbabwe, where over half of their 11.4 million people face starvation. Even as support from the IMF was suspended due to the government’s failure to meet budgetary goals, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet another consequence of poor government, the GDP of Zimbabwe declined by 6.5 percent in 2001, making this one of the world’s fastest shrinking economies. Usually a net exporter of food, Zimbabwe’s farms have been negatively affected not only by the weather, but also by President Robert Mugabe’s controversial and violent land redistribution programme. The programme’s method of evicting white farmers in order to grant the lands to blacks, while giving no consideration to their level of agricultural competence, has left what was a highly productive industry in a state of serious decline. Since this programme started, the amount of land planted and crops harvested by commercial farmers has decreased every year, and hundreds of thousands of farm workers have found themselves out of work. The devastating impact of Mugabe’s programme has wiped out food stocks that, in the past, had been held in preparation for a drought, making the effects of poor weather conditions even more dire.

Poor weather and government are important concerns that have, in the past, contributed to all of Africa’s food crises. Today there is a relatively new factor that contributes at least as much to current problems. In the areas most highly affected by starvation conditions, an average of between 20 and 25 percent of the adult population are infected by HIV/AIDS. This condition contributes doubly to food shortage difficulties. First, those who are infected need significantly more food than normal. Without extra sustenance, the virus spreads even more rapidly, consuming the health of an infected person. Additionally, the virus progressively undermines the ability to work, leaving families with ever decreasing incomes, while driving down overall agricultural productivity. Unlike in the past, when people who endured a food shortage could recover by taking advantage of the return of good weather, the current prevalence of HIV/AIDS means people will be more likely to die or be unable to recover from periods of starvation.

The forecast is not positive either. In 2003, it’s likely that El Niño conditions will bring about more poor farming weather, subjecting the people of Africa to another year of food shortages. Also, the HIV/AIDS virus has been killing off parents in great numbers, often leaving children to be raised by a single grandparent. Not only does this deprive children of their loved ones, but it also leaves them without an adult from whom they can gain knowledge such as farming, and often forces them to drop out of school in order to find work.

After the world witnessed the devastating effects of the famine of the mid-80s on Ethiopia, there was a global decision that such devastation would never be allowed to happen again. However, almost 20 years later Africa has found itself in the midst of a famine that will likely be its worst ever. It’s too late to prevent the conditions that led to this crisis from developing, but with progressive action it’s possible to provide the people of Africa with the technology and knowledge to avoid such a calamity in the future. In the meantime, Africa’s hopes lie with organizations like WFP and the Consortium for the South African Famine Emergency (C-SAFE), whose efforts are devoted to feeding the millions of starving people throughout the continent. Their work has only just begun.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
- Thomas J. Watson

Index: Current Articles

26 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Drugadair and the Drugadiers
Anthony McIntyre


Thesis Antithesis
Paul Dunne


The Hungry Continent
Terence McMenamin


Sean Torain


Do They Talk to You?
Annie Higgins


Fight Against American Hyper-Imperialism and Oppression

Sean Matthews


The Letters page has been updated.


23 January 2003


Sinn Féin's International Perspective: From Conservative to Radical in the Blink of an Eye
Deaglán Ó Donghaile


Northern Ireland's Political Goodwill Games
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


New Year's Greetings

Jimmy Sands


Why Ireland is Unfree; Continued
Chris Fogarty


Youth Against the Dictatorship of the Clerics
Anthony McIntyre


West Belfast Anti-War Meeting - Belfast March
Davy Carlin


Conversation with a State Assassin





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