Tag Archive for famine

The Political Economy of Famine


It’s that time again, when market apologists rush to wax insightful by noting that politics, not weather, causes famine. With the current uber-crisis in crisis-bound Somalia making small-print headlines, the marketiers will start tripping over themselves to seem smarter than people who superficially believe climate-based bad luck is the cause of hunger in Eastern Africa. They’ll do this by ignoring economics and focusing on government actions. And they’ll be partly right, of course, which is all that’s required to get a good pat on the back from anyone desperate not to acknowledge that “the market” has failed the destitute at least as much as their own and world political leaders have.

Case in point, a recent commentary by Richard Dowden called “Famine in Somalia: It’s the Politics… Stupid“. (One can’t help but think Dowden’s title is overstepping in its heavy-of-hand attempt to distract the reader from that other, less-palatable culprit.) Check out how insightful this sounds:

Drought can cause food shortages and price rises. But drought does not automatically mean famine. Famine is cause by politics – when war or governments prevent people moving or trading.

Nothing wrong with that statement, except failure to note the elephant in the room. Hmmm, what else could cause famine? Maybe extreme poverty, high food and general commodity prices globally, combined with the world’s reliance on markets to move goods even where movement and trade are not blocked by political forces. If political openness and local security do not guarantee a population the very basics for sustaining life, what is the failing force then? Dowden doesn’t answer this. Few ever do. Markets are treated as a fact of life, a given, not unlike the weather. So thoughtful observers hunt for causes that aren’t inevitabilities, as if we humans do not determine our economic models much the way we determine our politics (i.e., we let power elites decide).

Affluence and wealth are like magnets in terms of allocating necessities — regions and classes with greater demand power will see their excess wants prioritized over the bare basics needed in impoverished regions or by the destitute class. It isn’t really famine but the core impacts of famine we need to be concerned with; if we do, we see that famine is more a class phenomenon than a regional one. Politics somehow haven’t kept the wealthiest in famine-stricken regions from getting food. If you have the purchasing power, famine’s effects on you are very different than if you lack it. That being the case, how can we not note that the rules of the global market are the driving force of famine’s worst impacts?

Furthermore, where we see politics having the greatest impact on food insecurity in developing nations, it’s often if not usually due to economic policy that favors free markets. Where markets are freed up and stabilizing regulations or safety nets are removed, we see spikes in local food scarcity and human despair. Liberalized markets often even lead to countries exporting food during acute and chronic domestic shortages; international demand has that much perverse power! These policies are typically at the political behest of international bodies that operate under market ideologies for the benefit of international private interests.

This all applies to Somalia, which has spent 20 years in chaos following IMF intervention.

Non-fundamentalist market apologists will say this is all still the fault of government. If only governments would behave appropriately to control market forces, we wouldn’t see such perverse outcomes. It’s always the fault of politicians, and politicians are seemingly never able to curb markets appropriately in the developing world. What a coincidence. It can’t be the positive feedback loop of concentrated wealth has on politics, can it? This is inherent to market capitalist societies at all levels, which makes it the fault of capitalism, whether you like to admit it or not.

But it’s more in vogue to blame local governments, and of course Somalia’s excuse for a polity is an easy target here, what with the UN/AU-backed provisional government all but dead and the Al-Shabaab sideshow ineffectively running most of the South.

Why am I blogging about this on FuturEconomy? Because these same forces are at play here in North America. Austerity measures and deregulation are the watchword of Washington, and wealth disparities are a fact of life. Don’t think famine can’t happen here; it can, and it will, as long as we rely on an economic model that allocates necessities on a priority basis to those who don’t need them.