The Horn of Africa’s Last Famine?

With more than 13 million people facing starvation in the Horn of Africa, the international community must do much more to meet the immediate needs of this famine’s victims. But we should also be thinking about long-term solutions to prevent food crises on this scale from happening in the first place.

SEATTLE – The recent pledge of $350 million by African leaders and the international community to help the more than 13 million people facing starvation in the Horn of Africa underscores the need for continued attention and funding to prevent this tragedy from claiming and scarring even more lives. But, while much more needs to be done to meet the immediate needs of this famine’s victims, we should also be thinking now about long-term solutions to preclude food crises on this scale from happening in the first place.

Many people see famines as forces of nature, completely beyond our control. But famines are triggered by more than the weather. They are complicated events rooted in governance, security, markets, education, and infrastructure – all of which can be influenced.

We have the tools to prevent food crises by making smart, long-term investments in agriculture. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income from farming small plots of land, and most of these smallholder farmers are women. They have no margin for error, so they need to increase their chances of producing a crop. When farmers can produce more and earn more income, they become more resilient to shocks like severe weather and can put themselves and their families on a path to self-sufficiency.

In 2008, when global food prices skyrocketed, famine swept across Ethiopia, threatening more than 14 million people in the Horn of Africa. Oxfam America, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, organized a two-step response to the crisis. The first focused on 225,000 of Ethiopia’s most at-risk farmers, and got them what they needed immediately: food. The second step was to organize cash-for-work projects that built dams, rehabilitated springs, and constructed roads, thereby helping people to strengthen their small farms and improve their resilience to future droughts.

When drought returned this year, these investments paid off. Instead of needing food assistance, many of the farm families were able to cope with the harsh weather and look forward to a harvest.

This is not an isolated example. Thanks to the leadership of African countries that have made agricultural development a priority, and to the tireless efforts of many international organizations, real progress is being made against hunger and poverty on the continent.

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Ghana, for example, drastically reduced both poverty and hunger over the past 25 years by focusing on agricultural investments. The result today is a thriving agricultural sector, which is growing at more than 5% a year, and hunger levels that fell by 75% from 1990-2004.

Similarly, Ethiopia has made strides towards shifting agricultural policies and investing more in productivity improvements for small farmers, with increased spending helping to boost crop yields over the past several years.

Heartier crop varieties are helping farmers to weather tough conditions. New drought-tolerant maize varieties, for example, are already benefiting more than two million smallholder farmers in Africa. By 2016, maize yields are expected to increase by as much as 30%, benefiting up to 40 million people in 13 sub-Saharan countries.

Other projects – including those supported by the United States’ Feed the Future program, the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, and organizations such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – are finding new ways to bolster the productivity of small farmers across the developing world.

At a time of intense debate over budgets, people around the world must remember that these kinds of investments not only save lives, improve livelihoods, and promote stability, but also save money in the long run. Estimates show that emergency relief in famines costs seven times as much as preventing them.

That is why it is more important than ever for international donors and African governments to continue to support programs that give small farmers access to the good seeds, quality tools, and reliable markets that they need to become self-sufficient. It is up to all of us to make sure this horrible famine is the last.