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Famine Cover-Ups vs. Fake Famines

Is Ethiopia having a famine? As often is the case, there are two forces pulling in opposite directions that make it hard to answer the question.

On the one hand, the authoritarian government wants to cover up any famine to mute criticism of its performance.  Ethiopia is due for elections next year, and the government is determined not to go the way of previous regimes toppled in part because of anger at famines in the 1970s and 1990s. The government’s solution? Prohibit journalists from entering the worst-off areas, and fight tooth and nail with aid agencies to repress or delay information on humanitarian needs.

Complicating the situation further is that the government army is operating against insurgents in the suspected famine areas in the South and cites security reasons for not allowing outsiders to enter, so nobody really knows what is happening there.

On the other hand, NGOs have a well known tendency to cry wolf and exaggerate—to see famine where there is no famine—perhaps in order to raise more money for their own organization (I am echoing here fierce accusations of exactly this from Ethiopians I talked to during my visit who were NOT allied with the government).

For example, aid organizations and journalists saw signs of famine in Mali in the summer of 2005. Reuters reported that aid and donations were urgently needed in Mali “where the same famine that struck neighboring Niger is intensifying.” In another article, an Oxfam official was quoted saying: “They say there’s no famine in Mali, but that’s false. People aren’t able to eat for three or four days. Forget the political or academic definitions.” While Mali had suffered a series of droughts and an invasion of locusts which exacerbated the chronic food insecurity there, deaths did not approach famine levels. The predicted high numbers of deaths from famine in Niger in 2005 and Malawi in 2002 also thankfully did not materialize. It’s impossible to know how last minute appeals for funds may have affected these outcomes, but the fact remains that desperate pleas to end exaggerated famines are a blunt  instrument in addressing the causes of chronic malnutrition and long term food insecurity.

In his classic book “Famine Crimes” Alex De Waal observes that NGOs make “habitual inflation of estimates of expected deaths.” De Waal notes that during the pre-Christmas prime fundraising season, ‘One million dead by Christmas’… has been heard every year since 1968 and has never been remotely close to the truth.”

Put into the current mix a credulous Western media that is happy to check the box “Ethiopia = famine,” and is unable to handle subtleties like chronic food insecurity and chronic malnutrition vs. emergency famine. Between unreliable media, NGOs, and government, it is tragically difficult to know when tragedy is happening.

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  1. In 2005 in Malawi the exact same thing came up. Donors pushed for a declaration of a state of emergency, while the new Government were adamant that no such emergency was incipient (eventually a compromise was reached, closer to the donor perspective). I was new to the country then and didn’t know which side was telling the truth. All I knew was that in about 15 hours worth of meetings on this I attended in my first two weeks in the country I never once heard any statistics or numbers about the size of the supposed crisis/non-crisis.

    No famine materialised, but like you, I could never judge if that was because of the donors’ and Government’s quick action to raise funds, or because it was never going to happen anyway.

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 5:16 am | Permalink
  2. Esther Garvi wrote:

    Whatever is worth knowing in a country is always known by the local population. News travel from one marketplace to another, and they travel fast. When people only know of the famine from television or the radio that is supposed to be taking place in their area, you know it’s a scam.

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 5:52 am | Permalink
  3. Jane Moyo wrote:

    It can be quite difficult for aid agencies. As head of media at ActionAid UK I find that we’re often pushed by the media to paint the worst possible picture of a crisis and I know that most of us try to resist. We understand that it doesn’t help in the long term and devalues the very serious crises when they occur.

    And don’t forget the old media adage – if it bleeds it leads. I suspect that in the minds of most news journalists never were truer words said when in comes to their views of developing world stories!

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  4. Yi-An wrote:

    I’ve recently started following this blog and I love the frank and impolitic approach, though sometimes I find the language slightly polemic (a charge that I’m probably the first one to level).

    However, while the incisive commentary on the aid establishment is refreshing, I find myself hungering for an answer to the question: so what’s the solution? The perspectives in this blog are a critical piece of changing the global health and development landscape, just as the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem. But what next?

    For instance, in this entry, the core problem identified is the NGO climate, which feels compelled to raise money for its operations through exaggerating the problem. The deeper issue is probably lack of transparency overall, where accurate measurement and reporting of the problem OR the result of development efforts are lacking – glossed over in the quest for more dollars.

    But I already know that’s the problem – and I bet many people who work for NGOs also know that’s the problem. What’s the solution? I would love to see a more robust discussion that would provide readers with a sense of what SHOULD be happening.

    This is certainly beyond my expertise and I would love to hear people more knowledgeable than me speak to this. Is the (shocking) suggestion that NGOs ought to honestly report on the problem? The village we are serving in Ethiopia struggles with chronic food insecurity. It’s not a famine and no one is dying immediately, but 30% of children are malnourished and experience stunted growth, quality of life is dramatically lowered, and we need long-term operational funding in order to provide smallholder farmers in the region the tools they need to sustainably increase agricultural productivity. But the deeper issue seems to be the donor community, which flocks to emergencies and rarely demands proof of the problem, impact, sustainability.

    This blog is a fantastic start and perhaps coming up with solutions is not the purpose of this blog – but it seems like that’s what is really needed in the field. The devil is always in the details, and more often than not, it’s the details of working out a solution, not identifying the problem.

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink
  5. David Zetland wrote:

    Reminds me of this (from my blog): “Economists at Dartmouth College has discovered that ski areas report 23 percent more new snow on weekends, but, unsurprisingly, “there is no such weekend effect in government precipitation data.” []

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  6. D. Watson wrote:

    Two points. 1) See O’Grada’s JEL paper on “Making Famine History” (Working Paper version)

    2) I recognize your point is about the incentives of the organizations charged with reported whether there is a famine or not. A different but related question is: what’s the difference? If a national government or a donor agency or you and I could have prevented a death by emergency famine and chose not to, are we less morally culpable than if we could have prevented a death by chronic hunger and chose not to? Are famine sufferers in some way more worthy of our sympathy than other people who suffer from hunger?

    The distinction between the two kinds of death is important for knowing what we need to do to prevent them – flying/shipping/trucking in emergency food aid or investing in longer-term solutions like infrastructure and agricultural research. But in terms of “knowing when tragedy is happening” we already know that: ongoing, daily, and silently. The question is more if a tragedy that we care to acknowledge is happening.

    Posted November 19, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Ben Parker wrote:

    Let’s track who actually is calling it a famine, (or maybe a famine). So far we have Aid Watch and the sub-editor at the London Times who pimped up the 18th November headline?

    Posted November 24, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  8. Ben Parker wrote:

    Ah. The Independent could not let the Times have that famine to itself.

    Now it *stalks*:

    Posted November 24, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  9. Tom V wrote:

    Bill – do you have more to go on besides “people you talked to not allied with the government.” Logically, I’m inclined to agree with you here (as is true in most situations), but I despise the personal anecdote as proof, whether it’s in development or presidential debates. I’m sure the famine mongerers could easily come up with a long list of “people not allied with the government” who would say there is a famine.

    Posted November 30, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

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