Drought is an act of nature, famine is man-made

Check out this new campaign video by ONE.org

You can sign the petition here.

HT HuffPost

Hand Relief International

Something for the humanitarian and aid communites to think about, courtesy of Hand Relief International.

Among those in the know, another fact has not remained unnoticed: there is more money flowing in than used to and that, reader, is excellent news.

The shit continues to be real in Nairobi, the dignified hub of any meaningful Somalia project, with necessary field trips to Dadaab, where HRI has quickly  set up cutting-edge infrastructure to ferry high-flyers through, complete with up-to-the minute roster of the photogenic fresh arrivals that can be summoned in an instant with their families for that perfect picture, should the visitor require one for the cover of their all-important trip report or their obligatory article in newspaper of choice back home.

More on this here.

HT Blattman

Quick hits

Guide to arguing on the internet (HT Lauren).

Speaking of arguing on the internet, I like the drama that is spats between economists and other academics on their respective blogs.

The Economist presents the faces of famine in the Horn. It is beyond sad that so many people should be condemned to suffer this man-made tragedy.

Brett Keller has posts here and here on Sam Childers (a.k.a. machine gun preacher), a gun-runner into the habit of doing morally and ethnically dubious things in the name of God. Keller says that Childers is “stockpiling arms at his orphanage and has admitted to selling weapons to unnamed armed factions in Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda.”

In Zambia (where I shall be for the elections in Sept.) the politics of citizenship and belonging are yet to be settled 50 years after independence. We recently witnessed the dangers of de-legitimizing whole sections of countries as outsiders in Cote d’Ivoire. I hope that if Sata ever wins he will not do what incumbent Ivorians did to ignite a rebellion in the northern reaches of their country. For more on this check out this great book on the Ivorian collapse. I have read it and absolutely loved it.

A muddy few months ahead for the South African government. Infighting with the ANC top brass might mean an early exit for President Zuma. With over 60% of the votes in the last election, the ANC is essentially an oversize coalition prone to internal wrangles. It will be interesting to see how Zuma weathers the storm in the midst of challenges from both COSATU and Malema.

Lastly, the current issue of the Journal of African Economies looks at the impact of higher education in Africa. The main takeaway is that the low quality of education at lower levels (primary and secondary) has meant that the biggest bang for the buck on the Continent, as far as education is concerned, only comes with higher education. Too bad that many of those that get higher education are underpaid or out of the Continent all together.

Mediocre leadership is the biggest crime against humanity

The saying goes that when the tide runs out you get to know who has been skinny dipping. In the same vein, it is when disaster strikes that you get to know who has mediocre leadership.

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa, the worst in 60 years, has exposed eastern African leaders for who they are. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments for a while even refused to acknowledge the humanitarian catastrophe in their hands. The Kenyan government spokesman would not admit that any Kenyan has died from the famine. Kenya, the region’s biggest economy, is a lesson in the dangers of mediocre leadership: Meteorological warnings from two years ago were ignored; Money for food aid ended up in private bank accounts; and The government lacks any coherent agricultural and food security policies.

And because of it all, this is happening [please pardon the famine porn, but we need to see how REALLY bad things are]. 3.5 million Kenyans face starvation. 11 million in the wider region are affected.

In the last two days I have followed news stories on the situation in northern Kenya. I can only imagine how things are in the epicenter of the famine in Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia.

A lot of blame has been flying around. According to Jeff Sachs:

“The warning is also clear. The Horn of Africa is the world’s most vulnerable region, beset by extreme poverty, hunger and global climate change, notably a drying and warming of the climate during the past quarter century.”

adding that

“The west has contributed to the region’s crisis through global climate change that victimises the lives and livelihoods of the people of the region.”

In my view, however, the blame squarely lies with the region’s leadership. It is the leaders who have consistently refused to plan ahead, opting instead for palliative measures like food relief with lots of opportunity for graft. Blaming western colonialism, neocolonialism, climate change, etc are nothing but distractions. This problem and many other African problems are for the most part just that, African problems.

That millions of shillings in aid money was stolen, thus endangering millions of lives in northern Kenya, is a moral travesty. To add insult to injury, no one has yet been arrested or charged with the crime. It is Kenyan officials who have sat by and in some instances (in the past and now) even contributed to the endangerment of the lives of 3.5 million citizens of Kenya.

The usual perpetrators of crimes against humanity – warlords and their militia – kill with guns. But corrupt and mediocre civilian leadership continues to decimate millions more through both inaction and well calculated mis-allocation of resources.

Because of the famine 800,000 children in the wider region could die from malnutrition.

Food aid is definitely not a long term solution. But here is how you can chip in to help those affected by the famine.

The potato beats Maize, and most other Old World staples

The price of maize in Kenya and the rest of east Africa has hit the roof. The wider Horn of Africa region is currently experiencing its worst drought in 60 years, with thousands of refugees streaming into Kenya from Somalia every week.

10 million people in the wider Horn of Africa region are at risk. Kenya is already planning on opening a third refugee camp (besides Dadaab and Kakuma) to accommodate Somali refugees fleeing the famine.

Africa is the last major world region yet to experience a green revolution. Subsistence agriculture, in my view, is the culprit. Governments in the region must seriously come up with plans to consolidate and commercialize agriculture asap.

Having upwards of 70% of people dependent on subsistence agriculture is simply not sustainable. Period. To paraphrase Adam Smith, specialization determines the extent of the market AND the complexity and size of the economy. [italicized text mine]

As the region mulls over its agriculture and food policy it might help to consult Nunn and Qian’s new paper in the latest QJE. The paper makes the argument that the potato beats most of the Old World staples as far as a balanced supply of nutrients and calories is concerned (p. 604-5).

Maize is unable to rival potatoes in terms of nutrients or calories. It produces significantly fewer calories per acre of land. Moreover, humans are unable to subsist on a diet that is too con- centrated in maize. Significant consumption of maize is associated with pellagra, a disease caused by niacin deficiency. The effects of pellagra include skin, digestion, mental disorders, and, if un- treated, eventual death. The disease was first observed in the 1730s in Italy and even today continues to affect poor populations with diets that rely too heavily on maize. A second adverse effect of a corn-heavy diet is protein deficiency (Messer 2000a).

Sweet potatoes are also nutritious and produce similar amounts of calories per acre of land as potatoes, but they differ from potatoes in two important ways. First, the archaeological evidence suggests that sweet potatoes, transported by Polynes- ians, reached the Old World long before the European discovery of the New World. For many countries in our sample, their impact would have been felt as early as 1000 (Hather and Kirch 1991). Second, a close substitute to the sweet potato, the yam, already existed in the Old World (O’Brien 2000). Yams are broadly simi- lar to sweet potatoes in terms of both nutritional content and the requirements for cultivation. Many regions that were suitable for cultivating sweet potatoes had already cultivated yams when the former were introduced.

The New World staple, cassava, which is also called manioc or yuca, also provides abundant calories. But its deficiency in pro- tein and other important nutrients causes it to be a less “complete” food than potatoes (Cock 1982). In addition, because cassava con- tains toxic cyanogenic glycosides (e.g., cyanide), failure to properly prepare cassava causes konzo, a neurological disease that causes paralysis.

the central african republic, forever failing

update: For a history of the CAR read this: History of CAR

The Central African Republic (CAR) is perhaps the biggest joke as far as states within the international system go. Francois Bozize, the Gabon-born dictator that currently runs it, has failed to meet even the barest of needs of his countrymen. The IRIN reports:

“There is plenty of fertile land in the region [south east of CAR] but violence is interfering with traditional ways of life such as agriculture, hunting and fishing, with farmers often afraid to stray far from town to work their fields for fear of attack. This has reduced production, pushing up prices to the point at which not everyone can afford to buy food, even when it’s available,” said Christa Utiger, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) economic security coordinator for the CAR.

4.8 million people live in the country. A person born in the CAR can expect to live to be 50. The literacy rate is a woeful 49%. Per capita income (PPP) is US$ 700 (yes, PPP). Gold and timber are the main export earners, with the vast majority of people living on subsistence agriculture. 16% of CAR’s children under 5 are acutely malnourished. Rebel groups, including Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army routinely use CAR’s territory as launching bases. The only people who appear to be benefiting from the existence of CAR as a country are the thugs who run it, from David Dacko, to the self-proclaimed Emperor Bokassa to Francois Bozize.

great idea

African nations have finally woken up to the threat of the ever advancing Sahara. The “great green wall of Africa” will be several kilometres wide and stretch from Senegal to Djibouti. Whoever is funding this project should condition cash transfers on need level (aridity, terrain and what not) so we can have a way of measuring state capacity (and thus name and shame the laggards) across the many Sahelian states that will be planting this wall.

27-year old mother of nine, and four months pregnant

It is no secret that if standards of living are to improve on the Continent the rate of economic growth must outstrip that of the population. Sadly, Africa’s demographic transition continues to be a dream deferred. High (gendered) illiteracy rates, ignorance about (and church opposition to) contraceptives, antiquated cultural practices, among other things continue to reproduce all over the Continent crazy scenarios such as this in Madagascar: A 27-YEAR OLD WOMAN WHO HAS NINE CHILDREN AND FOUR MONTHS PREGNANT. This is insanity.

Quoting Donasine (said mother): “We are farmers, but without rain we were not able to grow anything. Every year I have another baby, and I am worried – I don’t have anything to feed them.” Add to this not being able to educate them or provide them with proper healthcare and you’ll see the utter abomination that is the continued anti-contraceptive movement in segments of African society. I am not saying that the Continent is over-populated. Far from it. China supports way more people with less arable land. What I am saying is that we are not in 10,000BC and therefore people should plan their lives better, and that it is the duty of government, the church and other relevant social institutions to ensure that people are aware of the alternatives they have. It is about time we stopped hiding behind culture and God and what not and see things for what they really are. Women like Donasine do not have ten children because they choose to do so. They are forced to do so by circumstances beyond their control.

For more on this check out Kristof at the Times.

gettleman does it again

Do not get me wrong. Jeffrey Gettleman’s story on the famine in Kenya is as important as any other article on a humanitarian disaster. It is his delivery that sucks. In typical Gettleman fashion (more about his style here and here), the article is full of sensationalism that does not belong in the Times. He goes way out of his way to depict all Kenyans as hapless, passive victims of the weather and their ineffectual government.

“The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.”

Lines such as these are meant to convey the message that ordinary Kenyans – meteorologists and even some civil society organizations or even the Kenyan media – have had nothing to say about the famine that is affecting the country. It is the do-gooder foreigners who know it all that have warned the intransigent government. It is the same foreigners who are expected to send in food aid to help the dying Kenyans. Nothing is ever said about local initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That would give agency to Kenyans, and nobody really wants to read about that.

Instead we are told that “Turkana men are abandoning families, simply vanishing into the desert because they cannot face the shame of being unable to feed their children.” And the story would not be complete without the mention of tribal conflict. So even though it is obvious, and quite rational, that in times of acute scarcity there would be conflict over resources – and even Mr. Gettleman acknowledges this – there is still subliminal hints to an irrational ethnic conflict between the Turkana and the Pokot. Again, nobody wants to hear about rational people fighting over resources. No, being in northern Kenya is like “stepping back in time.” The place is full of starving people who engage in irrational tribal wars. This is the much more sexier story.

May be I am holding Gettleman to too high a standard. After all he is an American lacking enough knowledge of local conditions to appreciate the nuances involved even in the midst of such disasters. But he is the Times’ bureau chief and because of that people take what he writes seriously. There must be a more humane way of telling the world about the problems afflicting the inhabitants of the arid and semi arid parts of Kenya.

africa’s population – the economist’s view

The Economist has two interesting pieces on the demographic trends in Africa. The first article notes that the fertility rates on the continent are finally beginning to come down. The second one discusses the chances that Africa will take advantage of the democratic dividend and execute its own green revolution.

As I have argued before, there is a great deal of economic sense in bringing population growth on the Continent under control – at least until people’s life options have been increased enough so that they can make well informed choices on the number of offspring to have. The usual critics of family planning measures – the Church and conspiracy theorists – should take some time to visit slums or rural homes in which overburdened, dis-empowered daughters of the Continent with little or no economic wherewithal run