The politics of famine in the season of thanks

Lisa Heldke

November 25, 1992|By Lisa Heldke

IT'S Thanksgiving in the United States while, in Somalia, 2 million people are in danger of starvation.

Typically, such a devastating famine prompts Americans to respond generously, if belatedly; once we actually start to see people dying on television, we send money. So at this time of year we often feel compelled to write an extra check to a famine relief organization at about the same time we write an extra-large check to the grocery store.

The crisis in Somalia, however, is not being billed as a "typical" famine. It has repeatedly been labeled by the media as a sick game of political manipulation leading to the misery or death of thousands. But the truth is that most famines are not merely the result of natural disasters. They are, instead, a deadly mixture of political, economic and environmental factors.

In the short run, the Somali famine has left many Americans feeling powerless. It seems pretty clear that our money isn't going to do much to stop this disaster from continuing. On one hand, we know food has been shipped to the nation and awaits delivery. On the other, we know that Somalia is in the hands of rival clan leaders engaged in a violent grab for power. To them, food relief supplies are a powerful weapon to be exploited.

But in the longer run, our collective feelings of helplessness over the Somali crisis can be the beginning of greater understanding of the nature of famines. Somalia, for example, shows that we can't save the world through charitable giving -- and never could. That realization challenges us to learn about the political underpinnings of this famine, and to use what we learn to analyze other global food issues. Somalia provides this opportunity because no one is questioning its political genesis and no one is claiming the disaster is the result of too many grasshoppers or too many years of drought.

For years, leaders of food and development organizations such as Food First! and Oxfam have pointed to economic and political undercurrents which create famine in dominated nations. And the evidence, both historical and modern-day, offers compelling evidence for these claims.

In the Irish potato famine of 1845-1848, for example, 1.5 million Irish citizens died when blight hit the potato crop. But questions overshadow this straightforward explanation. Why was an entire population so dependent on this single crop for subsistance? More pointedly, why did Ireland remain a net exporter of grains during the famine?

The answer requires understanding of Irish land ownership laws at that time, which allowed landlords to evict tenants and tear down their homes for non-payment of rent. When the potato crop failed, farmers were faced with the choice of eating their grain and being evicted or selling the grain and going hungry. Most chose to keep their homes and, in so doing, starved as the grain they grew was sold overseas.

Today, political squabbles over water rights on at least two continents may soon result in devastating effects to agricultural aquifers and irrigation systems. In Africa, several nations bordering the Nile River are fearful that Egypt, the largest and most powerful nation, may eventually use military might to secure its water supply for domestic and agricultural use. And, in the Middle East, trouble is brewing along the Ganges, Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where five nations are fighting over irrigation rights. If these problems are not solved diplomatically, the stronger nations may take what they want, causing crop losses and, eventually, politically-induced famines.

The Somali crisis, meanwhile, provides Americans with a particularly pungent, if little-known, window on the end of the Cold War. Over a 14-year period, the U.S. gave $780 million in economic and military aid to Mohammed Siad Barre, a violent and corrupt Somali leader, in order to balance Soviet interests in the region. When Barre fell from power in January 1991, the U.S. withdrew its aid, since Somalia was no longer strategically useful. The U.S. government then proceeded to ignore that nation until July 1992. By then, the International Red Cross had been providing emergency feeding in Somalia for more than a year.

We Americans must not ignore the cynically selective humanitarian involvement of our government in places like Somalia, Liberia and the Sudan. We need to call upon elected representatives to vote for genuine humanitarian aid based on people's needs, not America's strategic interests.

As we give thanks for a full plate on tomorrow's holiday table, we must do more than reflect on our good fortune for having been born in a nation with relative political and food stability. By divesting ourselves of the notion that all famines are merely "natural disasters," we will have taken the first step toward developing long-term food security for all people.

Lisa Heldke is assistant professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and co-editor of the book, "Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food."

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