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

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HT HuffPost

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.

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.

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

I reiterate, this lifestyle is not sustainable

The Economist’s Middle East and Africa section has a piece on the plight of those exposed to environemntal disasters due to climate change. The article talks a bit about the nomads of northern Kenya and how their livelihood remain endangered as the place gets drier and the drought cycle shortens. As I have stated before, it is not enough for us to pretend that the type of lifestyles still maintained by the nomads of Kenya, and Africa in general, are sustainable. The simple truth is that they are not. It is 2009 and human beings should not still be living at the mercy of nature, if they can avoid it. It is time these communities were given incentives to start laying the groundwork for a sedentary lifestyle. This is not cultural imperialism or anything. It is what’s practical.

And by the way, it is not condescending to say that nomadic pastoralism belongs in the stateless past when there was no concept of land tenure or stuff like libraries and hospitals and schools that require a sedentary lifestyle. “Incentives” here means some sort of nudge in the right direction. And to be quite honest, sometimes communities might make the wrong choices if the state stays out of their business. If a community chooses a lifestyle that kills half its children before they are five, confines women to the fields and kitchen, promotes high illiteracy rates and is generally backward by universally accepted standards of human life then I believe that the state has a duty to intervene. Now I know that for most of Africa the state is largely unable to do anything, and that is why there are NGOs everywhere (well to some extent). But this (the existence of an interventionist developmental state) ought to be the case.

How we can make the state do what it ought to do is another can of worms. But I think that right off the bat those involved in the development industry should always make it clear that the aim is to guarantee people a decent livelihood and not to merely make them comfortable in their poverty by pretending to “respect” their cultures and ways of life. This faux-respect is the kind of stuff that should never leave anthropology seminar rooms.

And going back to the Economist piece, the clown who wrote that piece should know that talking about the poor of the global south “picking up sticks” in conflicts is not cool. Such a condescending tone does not help anyone. The cheap humor is not worth it.

food shortage in Kenya

Food shortage continues to plague several parts of rural Kenya. This inspite of the Kenyan government’s public promises  to contain the crisis. The whole affair has been a sham. Firstly, the government officials charged with distributing cheap maize the rural and urban poor have been involved in corrupt scandals intended to defraud the government and the Kenyan people of millions of shillings. Secondly, the government does not seem to have a coherent long term plan to tackle the problem. Why is it that we are having a food shortage? Is it because people did not farm last year or is there some other reasons? And why didn’t anyone in government see this coming and plan for it in advance?

It is sad that so far no head has rolled yet. None of those suspected to have been involved in the scandals have been brought to justice – despite promises from several members of parliament. It is likely that people high up in the coalition government may have been involved hence the need to shield them for the sake of the coalition. I say this is a bucket of horse manure. This is total dung because we cannot continue to sacrifice the lives of innocent Kenyans just to keep a bunch of kleptocrats in high office. For too long Kenyan politics have lacked accountability. Justice should never be compromised for the sake of political expediency.

And where is the Kenyan media while all this is going on? What are their names? The names do not have to appear on the front pages of the Nation or the Standard. Just leak them online. Wikileaks is a good place to start. If our politicians do not want to willingly be transparent we should force them to do just that. That’s the least they could do for us for the obscene amounts of money we pay them every month.