War and Social Upheaval: Famine -- Modern African Famines (late-20th century)

Figure 1.--This tragic scene took place in northern Kenya during 1974. A child and mother from the Gabbra tribe beg for water and food. Unfortunately scenes like this have become an all too coomon feature of African life since de0colonization. The caption read, "A Gabbra child and his mother beg pathetically for water and food. They have nothing left."

Most of Africa achieved independence from European colonial power after World War II in the 1960s. In most countries the transition was peaceful. The new colonial leaders knew virtually nothing about economics, but widely believed that theough Governmenment management and socialist policies that they could rapidly develop their economies. Depite massive foreign assistance, virtually every country except South Africa proved to be economic disasters. Not only did the newly independent countries not rapidly develop, but living standards in many countries have actually deteriorated. And a tragic series of famines followed one after another in steady sucession. Civil wars and droughts were often involved as had rapid population increases, but the larger cause has been incompetent leadership, widespread corruption, socialist big government policies, and in more recent years Islamic fundamentalism. The people of Africa have, as a result, paid a terrible price. The famines that were once rare have now become endemnic. Millions of people through Africa are now affected. The situation is worst in East Africa. The countries hardest hit vary from year to year. The press tends to focus on drought and try to explain the problem away with climate change. There is little doubt that climate change is a factor, although there is a great deal of doubt how global change is ocurring and what can be done about it. Drought certainly can lead to a famine. And global warming can cause a famine and lead to a higher frquency and length of a famine. It is unlikely that all these famines could suddenly appear just because of global warming. The Sahel is especially vulnerable, both because of the environment, but also because of primitive technology. The sharp increase in famines over such a short period since independence (1960s) in no coincidence. It suggests much more is involved other than global warming. One noted economist points out that no substantial famine has ever occurred in a liberal democracy. [Sen] Too often the political or economic dimensions of fammine are ignored. Many of the best known famines are political famines such as Stalin's Ukranian famine and the famines caused by the NAZIs during World War II. Sometimes and in the case of Stalin, they Were politically inspired . In other cases such as the NAZIs in Greece, the Japanese in Indonesia, or the British in Bengal, it was largely a matter of indiference. The African famines seem to have a more complex mix of causes.


Ethiopian Famine (1973-74)

The economy of Ethiopia even in the late-20th century continued to be based on subsistence agriculture. The aristocracy consumed most of the surplus. The Ethiopian peasants lacked incentives to either improve farming methods or to store their excess harvest. They lived from harvest to harvest. They amounted to approximately the great majority of the population and still do. Famines occured in northern Ethiopia erlier: Amhara and Tigray (1913-14), Amhara (1929), Tigray (1958), and Anhara (1966). Famine struck again in norther Amhara (1973). The Amhara Region is the most important agricultural region of Ethiopia. The Amhara Highlands receive something like 80 percent of the country's total rainfall. It is by far the most fertile and well watered region of Ethiopia. Laka Tana, the source of the Blue Nile is located in Amhara at Bahir Dar. The flow of the Blue Nile reaches maximum volume in the rainy season (June to September) and supplies about two-thirds of the water of the Egypt's famed Nile. The Blue Nile, along with the Atbara River to the north, which also flows out of the Ethiopian Highlands, cause the annual Nile floods that made the Nile so fertile and was the basis of the ancient Egyptian civilization. The 1972 harvest was poor. Poor rainfall triggered the 1973-74 famine. Some 300,000 people, predominantly the northern peasantry, died during the famine. [UN FAO] The lack of rain resulted in a harvest failure, but many other factors contributd to the death toll. It was not that there was notfood avilable in Ethiopia. The drought that caused the harvest failure only affected northern Ethiopia, particularly Amhara. Starvation ensued, because little food from the Ethiopian a regions not affected by the drought. The suffering peasants did not have money to purchase food. Ethiopia lacked the infrastructure and the will to transport large quantities of food to Amhara and destribute it to the starving peasantry. One author estimates that there were only 14,000 miles of road in the country and only a third of that all weather. [Jansson, Harris, and Penrose] Some 90 percent of the population lived more than a day’s walk from a road. The Imperial Government made no real effort to save the starving peasants. Failure to respond to the crisis was a major factor leading to the fall of the Imperial government and the rise of the Communist Derg (1974). Tragically the Derg proved even more deadly to the Ethiopian peasantry.

Kenya (1974)

Ethiopia (1983-85)




Jansson, Kurt, Michael Harris, and Angela Penrose. The Ethiopian Famine (1991).by

Sen, Amartya. Democracy as Freedom (Anchor, 1999).

UN. FAO. (1974).


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Created: 3:00 AM 9/5/2012
Last updated: 2:36 AM 2/15/2018