Stateness and famine: The Case of Ethiopia

The Economist reports:

Ethiopian officials say that this failed harvest is as bad as the catastrophic droughts that befell Ethiopia in 1965-66, 1972-73 and 1984-85, killing more than 1m people in all. But a sophisticated food-security system means that poor Ethiopians these days can cope much better with drought than before.

“Many, many people died in the past. But we now have early-warning systems and programmes to mobilise grain from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity,” says Mohammed Yasin, head of Disaster Prevention and Food Security in North Wollo, a province whose name was once synonymous with famine. “We will avoid this problem without evacuating areas.”

….. The Overseas Development Institute, a British think-tank, puts much of Ethiopia’s ability to deal with drought down to its Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), Africa’s largest social-protection scheme. Set up in 2005, it puts around 6m able-bodied men and women to work for five days a month on public works, such as digging waterholes for animals or building terraces for crops. In exchange, their households and those of more than 1m less able citizens receive food or cash amounting to 13kg of cereal and 4kg of pulses a month for the leanest half of the year

More on this here.

Still waiting for the African Green Revolution.

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.

after sudan, ethiopia

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir is here to stay. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi is up next on a list of African autocrats who face elections this year. Ethiopia holds parliamentary elections on May 23rd in a vote that will determine who becomes Prime Minsiter. Africa’s second most populous country cremains under tight rule by the increasingly despotic Meles Zenawi. It is a foregone conclusion that Mr. Zenawi’s party will win. The only non-academic part of these elections will be how many seats the opposition is allowed to win. Mr. Zenawi has run the country since 1991 when he led a rebellion that overthrew the tinpot dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

More on Mr. Zenawi’s rule here.

The other elections coming up in the next month include Mauritius (May 5th) and the Central African Republic (May 16th). Keep track of these elections here.

lessons not learned

It has been 25 years since the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine that inspired Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to write the song do they know it’s christmas?

The Ethiopian government is marking the anniversary in the most appropriate way: by appealing for food aid from the international community to assist the more than 6.2 million of its citizens who are faced with starvation sans food aid. Yes, over the last 25 years the government of Ethiopia has not been able to put in place systems to guarantee its people food security. It is almost like 1985 never happened. Agriculture  (which is dominated by coffee) accounts for over 40% of GDP and makes up 60% of Ethiopian exports (CIA factbook). Now, I am no expert on agricultural economics or on Ethiopia per se but I am willing to bet a few hundred shillings that Addis must be favoring cash-cropping over basic food security. I guess it is just a lot easier to tax coffee exports than peasant agriculture – especially if you have an expensive autocratic system to maintain.

I say food aid should be conditioned on Meles Zenawi loosening his grip on power. Just like food aid during the last famine helped prolong the civil war at the time (see Alex de Waal), giving Zenawi food aid without any preconditions will just continue to perpetuate the very system that has been unable to guarantee food security for Ethiopians. Sen’s beliefs on autocracies and famines are partly true. Ethiopians continue to have these cycles of famine because Addis does not have to listen to the average peasant in Afar.

This does not mean that we should heartlessly sit back and watch millions of people die. No, those that can should assist as many people as is possible. However, while at it, the international community should insist on fairer government in Addis. It doesn’t have to be about regime change through elections or those other democratic stuff. All is needed is a guarantee of the chance for average Ethiopians to live decent lives without having to worry about major famines every decade or so.