Once again, lamentably, the prophecy of Norman Borlaug comes to pass:
“Man can and must prevent the tragedy of famine in the future instead of merely trying with pious regret to salvage the human wreckage of the famine, as he has so often done in the past. We will be guilty of criminal negligence, without extenuation, if we permit future famines.”
Dr. Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, issued this warning back in 1970 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end hunger through agriculture development. That’s 41 years ago, and, yet, another famine is upon us. And, again with pious regret, we try to salvage the human wreckage.
The reasons for this famine in the Horn of Africa are manifold: a severe drought has gripped the entire region; the conflict in Somalia has deprived many people of food and is forcing hundreds of thousands to flee through the bush and the desert in hope of finding food and salvation in neighboring communities and countries; high commodity prices and food shortages are spreading hunger and social volatility.
Another contributing factor is the “criminal negligence” Dr. Borlaug warned about. After the success of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, agriculture development slid down the scale of top global priorities. Africa’s smallholder farmers were particularly neglected by their own governments and by international development programs. For the past several decades, they have had limited access to better seeds, fertilizer, financing, insurance, irrigation, improved storage, reliable transport and efficient markets. Thus, smallholder farmers in the Horn of Africa and throughout the continent are woefully under-producing. They are generally unable to feed themselves let alone their countries and their regions.
Here, as seen by the World Food Program, is the current toll of the present famine and the efforts to “salvage the human wreckage”:
“Since the beginning of July, WFP has assisted some 7.4 million drought-affected people throughout the Horn of Africa and is ramping up to reach more than 9.6 million people over the coming weeks and months. In August, WFP assisted some 990,000 people in Somalia; 3.74 million in Ethiopia (including 240,000 refugees); 1.86 million people in Kenya (including 546,000 refugees); 109,000 drought-affected people in Djibouti and more than 700,000 in the Karamoja region of Uganda.” The effort to reach more people includes nearly one million Somalis living in areas the WFP hasn’t been able to access because of the conflict.
Pious regret has generated $385 million in announced contributions to the WFP. And a wave of money has also flowed to other international relief organizations. But the problem with pious regret is that it only lasts so long. Thus, the WFP also says that the budget shortfall for the whole Horn of Africa appeal for the next six months is $215 million.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, under heavy budget-cutting pressure, reduced slightly the food aid amount from the previous year as it marked up the fiscal year 2012 agriculture spending bill last week. But a battle still looms over foreign aid spending, wherein lies the best way to heed Dr. Borlaug’s imperative to “prevent the tragedy of famine in the future.”
That is to focus on agriculture development, particularly programs designed to create the conditions so the smallholder farmers can be as productive as possible and be able to feed their families and their nations. To aspire to longer-term solutions of food security that will only come by shifting from mere pious regret to actually reversing the neglect.