Famine in Africa: The Failure of the World System

February 5, 2013
Food Crisis
If famine in Africa was quite common at the beginning of the 20th century, it disappeared for decades until its coming back in the 70s. It’s only in the 1990s that the proper humanitarian aid framework was useful enough to prevent millions of deaths. Yet, foreign aid remains deeply flawed even while it proves vital in any food crisis.

Aid of course isn’t the only one responsible for this mess, far from it. Negligence in the handling of resources and poor economic development worsened the 2002 food crisis that threatened the lives of 15 million Africans. In Malawi thousands of deaths were caused by a misunderstanding (at best) between the government and the IMF (see the food crisis article).

As a result of this, 1/3 of the population ended up depending on food aid to survive. What’s worse is that today there are three times more people affected by famine in Africa than there were 25 years ago. So what happened? How come famine relief didn’t work? Well simply put, it’s because no one thought of tackling the causes of the food crises, so it just keeps on happening again and again.

Are cities and rural areas both at risk?

While the food crisis usually hits urban residents pretty hard because many farmers can benefit from higher prices, a great deal of East African farmers is also at risk since the whole region is prone to extreme weather such as droughts and floods that completely obliterate crops in the region.

This makes hunger - and even famine - nearly constant threats in the region as farmers depend on regular rainfall for their agriculture.

The need for a custom agricultural plan

The absence of safety nets - these countries are often too poor to afford any, or too mingled in ethnic tensions to offer such services - increases dependence on foreign aid crisis after crisis. The best type of aid to offer is one that will provide assistance for Africans to engage in agriculture and sustainable development strategies. Thus aid should always be part of a wider poverty reduction plan as it’s the only way to prevent these food crises and famines from happening over and over again.

It also means that the development of Eastern Africa needs to follow a plan tailored to the region and its terrible weather. Specific crops, specific agricultural techniques and technology are needed. This is also an opportunity to develop trade within Africa, especially with neighboring countries that aren’t affected by the disaster. And then experts should work so that the development spark spreads around to other neighbors.

Can foreign aid alleviate the African famine?

african famine refugees
‍Refugees of an african famine

Bringing African farmers in world trade

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP, a food-aid agency) runs several training programs - such as Purchase for Progress - that help African farmers get quality crops as well as increase their productivity and income. The role of the WFP is to integrate African farmers in the global economy by buying out their production… with the risk that it will hurt American and European farmers because they usually sell at higher prices than Africans.

The limits of humanitarian aid

International aid has never been able to solve any recurring famine in Africa because its role is to relieve hunger. Food aid is focused on short-term emergencies and doesn't address the causes of the crisis. That's why even if it's badly needed in emergencies, a long-term plan is also vital.

In times of famine, the way things work is that developed countries have bought their own farmers’ production and shipped it to Africa, doing nothing to build a local farming industry. By doing so, nothing is done to prevent the next food shortage.

Using strategies that work

Another of the World Food Program’s projects consists in buying food to regional farmers (in Ethiopia for example) at a fixed price so that they support the development of a local economy. African farmers are then sure to sell their production which is quite the incentive to venture and invest in agriculture.

This is exactly the same system that was setup for American farmers in the 19th century. Is there a reason that what has worked to develop the US, Europe or China shouldn’t work to develop Africa? Some things have changed in a 150 years (technology, global market) and some things haven’t, the causes of underdevelopment remain what they are. In this case, being sure that you’ll sell your crops for a specific amount of money gives farmers a guarantee that income will be steady so that they can invest in new technology (machines, better crops, etc). Then little by little, the agriculture is modernized.

The Purchase for Progress program helped give a better sense of entrepreneurship and understanding of the market to hundreds of thousands of farmers all across Africa. They were able to find new customers (e.g. schools and institutions) and realize that by improving the quality of their product they would sell a lot more, thus improving their income. Although the program’s far from being enough to solve all of famine in Africa (emergency aid is still needed right now!), it adds one more tool in the strategy to solve the African poverty puzzle.

Flaws of humanitarian aid

international experts aid food crisis africa
International experts helping the famine in Africa

Two major flaws

First, the response time is too slow and aid often arrives months and months later (unlike national and regional aid). Secondly, it’s extremely variable and unpredictable because it's based on voluntary contribution.

And worse, in smaller NGOs, big donors often want to show (off) that they donated, so they insist on having their contribution arrive where the big TV stations are filming or where they have filmed. Obviously, what you see on TV is but a small part of the problem and helping one village is far from enough.

The three requirements of food aid

There are three essential requirements when it comes to humanitarian aid:

  1. It needs to arrive in a timely fashion
  2. In predictable amounts
  3. It needs to target the right places and populations

This is why government aid agencies are important to make sure that enough food is available. And this is why weather and crop monitoring is just as important in order to foresee droughts and floods.

A bad time for aid?

The problem with government agencies though is that they’re now having their funding cut because of all the financial mess and budget restrictions worldwide. Likewise, too many workers and companies in the West are involved in the “aid business” - e.g. they're in charge of producing and delivering food aid. So, when a humanitarian program focuses on developing Africa and its internal trade, it threatens the jobs and the future of these Western companies. Consequently, most programs that try to develop agriculture or African trade is often radically downsized or simply shut down.

To give you just an example there are over 30,000 jobs in the US that depend on delivering food aid to Africa. It’s a whole business that was built around delivering food aid. So if the famine in Africa were to stop it would make all these people jobless. A quite tricky situation for the US, isn't it? In the end it’s also the local countries’ responsibility to implement a sound famine prevention strategy that includes: weather and crop monitoring; risks and aid management as well as a response strategy to make the best use of all their resources.

Impact of climate change on the famine

Lack of funding and lack of vision

Of all continents, climate change represents the most severe threat for Africa. The problem in itself would entirely justify an increase in foreign aid but with the current crisis and debt issues, it’s unlikely to happen. Not to mention that developed countries are now dealing with their own issues related to climate change.

Moreover, ever-growing pollution in the developed countries often pushes governments to invest in limiting the immediate impact of the problem. This means that all the resources are being used to solve today’s problems, neglecting the impact of climate change in the next 20 years (e.g. no coherent plan for the economic development and fight against famine in Africa).

Which regions will suffer from climate change?

The Stern report had already foreseen a few years back that East Africa would be hit the hardest, just like the arid regions of the Sahel and dry areas of Southern Africa. A direct effect of climate change is the waning of agricultural production, leaving millions both unable to produce or to buy food because of the rise in global prices.

In many African countries, a great deal of crops are hardly adapted to the extreme climate, so the slightest increase in temperature equals a catastrophe for the production.  For an increase in 3°C (37.5°F) the production could fall by as much as 35%. The same temperature rise would increase by over 300 million the number of people threatened by hunger (currently estimated at 800m worldwide, half of whom live in Africa).

The cause of more conflicts and famine in Africa

Another problem due to climate change is the warming of the Indian Ocean that seems to have started a new trend: a reduction of rainfall on East Africa, by 15% on average, and precisely during the growing season.

Such diminution is often counted among the reasons for violence and clashes as rivalries appear to occupy good land and vie for resources. Climate change has become a factor of social tensions and violence. This can only aggravate the famine in Africa which risks being tied to ethnic discrimination.

No green revolution for Africa

food shortages mass grave africa
‍Mass grave for children who died from famine in Africa

As population keeps on growing in Sub-Saharan Africa, more and more land is put to use for the agriculture and yet food production keeps on waning. Undoubtedly the solution to famine in Africa rests for the most with sparking a green revolution, like the one that happened in many Asian countries 50 years ago.

Modernizing the agriculture

This implies the use of modern techniques with chemical or other improved fertilizers (though expensive) and high-yielding, stress-resistant crops among other things. The development of technology and biology has allowed for the creation of drought-resistant crops, obviously vital to save the millions of lives threatened by famine in Africa. Likewise chemical or organic improved fertilizers will help increase the production.

The keys to ending a famine and creating a green revolution haven’t changed: the farmers are always “down” for adopting more profitable techniques, the only obstacle is lack of money and investment (public & private) in new technologies and research.

The impact of AIDS

The infection makes people less resistant

Since 2003 the causes of famine in Africa have somewhat changed. The face of famine itself is now different because of the effects of AIDS. There is no 100% concluding research yet, but more and more studies tend to confirm that the famine in Africa is worsened by AIDS, in addition to the original droughts and disastrous management of resources by governments.

Decade after decade AIDS has plunged thousands of households into a severe state of precariousness and vulnerability. Rural families and farmers have become less resistant to shocks such as droughts and food price surges. The disease had them exhausted to the point that they’re less persistent and able to fight to survive. Overcoming shocks and especially droughts take a lot of energy and AIDS is by definition an affliction that depletes people’s strength.

Many more factors at play

But recent research has also proved that the picture is much more complex and not everything can be attributed to AIDS. 

For instance resources mismanagement, economic crisis and neoliberal reforms (poor performance of African markets when facing the harsh global competition) are just as important factors that add to the famine in Africa. 

But the argument of AIDS remains crucial to remind you that when looking at poverty and crises you need to think as broad as possible (economic as well as social factors).

The causes of poverty are often complex, made of different processes and changes. So you need to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes to understand what they go through, what it is like to survive the famine in Africa, what challenges and obstacles you have to overcome.


  • ‍Does the WTO Agreement on Agriculture Endanger Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa?, Samuel K. Gayi, Food Security, Indicators, Measurement, and the Impact of Trade Openness 2007
  • New Variant Famine: AIDS and Food Crisis in Southern Africa, Alex de Waal, Alan Whiteside, The Lancet Oct. 2003
  • Can African Farmers Learn to Thrive?, Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg Businessweek Aug. 2011
  • Warming of the Indian Ocean Threatens Eastern and Southern African Food Security but Could Be Mitigated by Agricultural Development, Chris Funk et al., National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Aug. 2008
  • Entitlements or Empowerment? Famine and Starvation in Africa, Michael Watts, Review of African Political Economy 1991
  • Near Death in the Streets of Karibib: Famine, Migrant Labour and the Coming of Ovambo to Central Namibia, Jan-Bart Gewald, The Journal of African History 2003
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  • Urban Farming and Food Security in Nigeria, Sunday Ichima, Pranjana 2009
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  • Weather Patterns, Food Security and Humanitarian Response in Sub-Saharan Africa, Menghestab Haile, Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences 2005
  • Why Can’t We Transform Traditional Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa?, Keijiro Otsuka, Review of Agricultural Economics 2006

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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