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Mon 15 Jul 2013
Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.
In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake. MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry. While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…
Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border. The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving. Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it. Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”. This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable. As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective. Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.
The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM. In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion. In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures. This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers. In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life. And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative
I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.
Buy it here:
Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.
*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…
Tue 27 Nov 2012
While all the current screaming in Washington is about the fiscal cliff, an aspect of USAID’s aid efforts has already slipped off its own precipice, and is hanging by the roots of a dried-out shrub. The farm bill is stalled – some analysts don’t expect any movement until April 2013. Given all of the fiscal challenges the country faces, this might sound reasonable – but within the aid and development world, the deferral of the farm bill is setting up a trainwreck. The Office of Food for Peace’s (FFP) Title II programs are authorized by the farm bill. In the absence of a new bill, a number of FFP’s authorities expired at the end of the fiscal year (September 30th). The rest of Title II’s new awards, which are authorized by the farm bill, will expire at the end of the calendar year.
What is Title II? According to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the USDA:
Title II provides for the donation of U.S. agricultural commodities by the U.S. government to meet humanitarian food needs in foreign countries. Commodities may be provided to meet emergency needs under government-to-government agreements, through public and private agencies, including intergovernmental organizations such as the World Food Program, and other multilateral organizations. Non-emergency assistance may be provided through private voluntary organizations, cooperatives, and intergovernmental organizations. Commodities requested may be furnished from the Commodity Credit Corporation’s (CCC’s) inventory acquired under price support programs or purchased from private stocks. The CCC also finances the costs of ocean transportation to ports of entry, or to points of entry other than ports in the case of landlocked countries, or when the use of a point of entry other than port would result in substantial savings in costs or time. The CCC may also pay transportation costs from designated ports of entry or points of entry abroad to storage and distribution sites, and associated storage and distribution costs for commodities, including pre-positioned commodities, made available to meet urgent or extraordinary relief requirements.
Who cares? Title II funds authorize a huge chunk of the FFP program each year. There are some limited community development funds, and similarly limited emergency food security funds. In fiscal year 2009, this was a $2.6 billion program. Billion, with a B. For FY 2012, the appropriated amount was $1.466 billion, down significantly but still a huge share of the global food aid budget. Note that this is the aid that the United States moves through various NGOs and intergovernmental organizations like WFP, so if Title II grinds to a halt, these organizations and their work will be severely compromised.
We might get away with this without a total disaster. For example, FEWS-NET shows a lot of stress in the horn of Africa right now, but projects improving situations over the next few months. But if Title II grinds to a halt, and any major food crisis hits (which could include food price spikes), FFP will little capacity to do anything about it.
Congress cannot agree on much these days, but I suspect there are few in that august body that think it is OK to leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to their fates because they can’t get their legislative act together. Let’s hope they figure this out. Soon.
Thu 30 Aug 2012
Since we’re on the topic of messaging, here’s something I’ve wanted to post on for a while. In response to the Horn of Africa famine, USAID and several partner organizations stood up a campaign called FWD (Famine, War, and Drought) to raise awareness of the situation in the Horn, and to raise funds for relief. There were all kinds of issues with this campaign, but for me the biggest was how the use of celebrity in the FWD campaign illuminated just how thin celebrity authority can be and still produce an “acceptable” message.
For example, the campaign drew upon Anthony Bourdain, television chef and food critic. His expertise, when speaking about famine, comes from the fact that he is a (famous) chef, because “chefs understand . . . not only how important it is to eat, but how awful it is when you can’t.” (an actual quote from one of the Bourdain film clips). This is an odd construction of expertise, when one considers it carefully. First, it is unclear how chefs might have any greater understanding of how awful it is to be food insecure than any other person. Second, this presentation hides the fact that the importance of food to Bourdain is rather different than its importance to a Somali forced to flee across the Kenyan border to find food – Bourdain is a chef with a TV show who eats a hell of a lot of good/exotic food and is very well paid to do it. Food is very important to him. But probably not in the same way as a mother in Somalia trying to feed her child dirt or dry grass, anything to keep the child from dying. Finally, because Bourdain’s show “No Reservations” takes him to various exotic locations around the world, there is something of a presumption that he knows about the challenges that face people in that part of the world. However, Bourdain has never visited an area suffering from severe food shortage on the show, nor has he extensively interacted with someone who is acutely food insecure to experience their diet and context.
[Aside: I think Bourdain would be fantastic at critiquing food aid...not the system, but the actual food that is delivered – seriously, someone needs to make that happen. He would probably have some interesting ideas, actually.]
This is not to question Bourdain’s sincerity in his concern for the situation in the Horn of Africa. Instead, I am trying to highlight that his selection to play this role, and his legitimacy to the viewer when he speaks about famine, does not come from any sort of expertise in addressing famine, war or drought, but from a perception that he knows something about how people eat in many parts of the world. That is akin to claiming to be an agricultural expert because you’ve stood on dozens of farms in the developing world (something I’ve actually heard someone say). You are not an agricultural expert, you are an agricultural tourist. Bourdain’s expertise in food insecurity falls below the level of tourism.
Fine – the celebrity experts aren’t really experts. We all knew that before I burned 500 words at the front end of this post. But this matters a hell of a lot, especially when you consider the solutions people like Bourdain were supporting under FWD. The interventions identified by the FWD website were narrowly technical means of addressing acute need, and did not in any way address the root causes of the crisis that brought about these needs, including climate change, rising global food commodity prices, and long-term political instability. Instead, in an effort to muster support for (much needed) relief efforts, FWD and its celebrity spokespeople once again reduced Africa to a site that has ill health and absence of well-being at its essence and therefore beyond addressing in a fundamental way. In FWD PSAs, a recurrent theme was the phrase “We are the relief,” an echo of Magubane’s critique of celebrity activism’s representations of Africa as, “while not populated by spear-chucking savages . . . completely bereft of doctors, politicians, musicians, or actors.” One only need look to the website’s claim that “US Assistance will continue funding the urgently needed food, health, shelter, water and santitation assistance to those who desperately need help” (website’s emphasis) to understand that there is no clear end to this need under the narrative presented by FWD. Those affected by the crisis become helpless objects of pity, a problem with a technical solution for the immediate crisis, but no hope for long-term resolution.
Celebrity activism does matter – like any tool, it can be used for good or problematic ends. But when the celebrity is appointed an expert, their opinions start to shape public opinion and longer-range funding and outcomes. If they don’t know what they are talking about, they can be sucked into problematic narratives that perpetuate the problems that the celebrities hoped to address through their participation. Celebrities, learn your material, consult the experts, then choose your causes carefully – you can do some good, but only if you take an active role in ensuring that is what your participation is bringing about.
Wed 29 Aug 2012
So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today. This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop). Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly. A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:
1) The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened. When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news. As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting. I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).
2) In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.” Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them. First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time. They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely. Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent. The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.” These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others. To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below). Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.
3) Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame. In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis. Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off. Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged. Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work. So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase. If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc. In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms. After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand. Why?
- Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas. Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
- Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason. I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening. But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.
4) Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all. A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media. Ugh. One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started. Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored. I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror! This will be fun…
5) Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest. Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages. To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well). The students got that right away. But nobody really did this for the Horn. Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc. From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy. It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.
There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement. While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement. For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes. I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.
To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post. My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault. The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong. Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging. Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future. That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…
Mon 27 Aug 2012
Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years. That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice. And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…
Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares. So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine. Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands. Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it. And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa. But…at best, that is a few people. Out of 70.
HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN? Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after. This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).
I don’t blame the students. Honestly. They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long. The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely. I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post). Media coverage was confused. Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather. Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda. But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.
That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more. These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world. And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.
Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly. Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging. Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.
I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief. Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right. Somebody do this right. I can only reach 70 people at a time…
Wed 9 Nov 2011
Chris Albon copied me on a retweet today from World Concern that said:
A beautiful sight: things growing in #Somalia. This is what’s possible in the #HornofAfrica. twitpic.com/7c8y24
For those not inclined to click the link, it went to this picture:
I have mixed feelings about this tweet and this picture. On one hand, it expresses what I am sure is genuine relief from an organization that is concerned with the well-being of people living in the Horn of Africa. On the other hand, the phrase “this is what is possible” suggests that this does not usually happen . . . except, of course, now we are in the Dayr, the October to December rainy season. Though the Dayr is the shortest rainy season in this part of the world, wet fields and new growth do in fact usually happen right about now. Further, the phrase “things growing in Somalia” suggests that nothing was growing before. This was not the case – things have been growing, even in famine-struck parts of southern Somalia. Not enough has been growing in some places, and this shortage has been compounded by all sorts of political challenges that have created a widespread problem. Finally, there is a bit of tone to this – as if we are out of the woods in the Horn. Well, maybe – but it will be months until a real harvest comes in, and much longer than that before accountable governance and functioning markets return, so we have a ways to go. And given that this famine was not caused by drought (the drought exacerbated other underlying factors), the fact that we are having trouble addressing those underlying factors means the next drought (and there will be another one relatively soon) may create a very similar set of circumstances and challenges.
In summary, I believe in hope. That is why I call myself an optimist. But at the same time, we have to be careful about conflating hope with triumph . . . which is why I call myself a hopelessly realistic optimist.
Sun 24 Jul 2011
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Delivering Development, development, Development Institutions, environment, Food Security, globalization, Higher Education, Livelihoods, migration, policy, research
A number of folks have contacted me asking for a post that discusses how we might address the rapidly worsening famine in the Horn of Africa. In short, folks want to know what is being done, and what they can do, both in terms of the immediate famine and to prevent this from happening again.
First, in addressing the acute situation right now: please understand that aid agencies are moving as fast as they possibly can where they possibly can. There are a lot of challenges in southern Somalia, and these political-logistical hurdles matter greatly because the only remedy for the immediate situation is massive relief efforts to address the acute food insecurity in the area. There are complex logistics behind where those supplies might come from. That said, agencies are already moving to preposition aid materials as best they can.
If you want to help with the immediate relief effort, send money. Yes, money. Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. It’s hard and expensive to deliver, and usually the donation of material goods just screws up local economies, making recovery from the crisis much harder and prolonged. Look into the groups, such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program, that are on the ground delivering aid. Examine their philosophies and programs, and donate to those you can agree with. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research before donating. Oh, and please, please stay the hell out of the Horn of Africa, as you’ll just get in the way of highly trained, experienced people who are working under enough strain. I will make an exception for those with experience in emergency relief work – feel free to work through your networks to see if you are needed. If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.
The question of how we will prevent the next famine is an open one. In my personal opinion (which, incidentally, counts for exactly nothing right now), addressing the causes of this famine, and the continuing sources of insecurity in this region, are going to require a rather different approach to development than that we have taken to this point. In my book (Delivering Development – hence the title of the post) I argue that part of the reason that development programs don’t end up solving the challenges that lead to things like famine is because we fundamentally misunderstand how development and globalization work. We are going to have to step back and move beyond technical fixes to particular challenges, and start to think about development as a catalyst for change. This means thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region, and how our resources might be used to initiate processes that bring those changes about. As I keep telling my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention. Even putting a borehole in a village invokes local politics – who gathered the water before? Who gathers it now? Who can access the borehole, and who cannot? If the borehole has resulted in the creation of free time for whoever is responsible for water collection, what do they do with that free time? The answers to these questions and dozens of others will vary from place to place, but they shape the outcome of that borehole.
At the same time, such a process requires redefining the “we” in the sentence “thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region . . .,” because it really doesn’t matter what people, living in the United States or anywhere else outside the Horn of Africa, want to see in the region. It’s not their region. Instead, this “we” is going to have to emerge from a real partnership between those who live in the Horn of Africa, their governments, and the aid agencies with the resources to make particular programs and projects happen. For example, we are going to have to use our considerable science and technology capacity to really explore the potential of mobile communications as a source of rapidly-updated, geolocatable information about conditions on the ground to which people are responding with their livelihoods strategies. However, this technology and data will only be useful if it is interpreted into programs in concert with the sources of that data: people who are already managing tremendous challenges with few resources. Information about rainfall is just a data point, until we place it into social context – whose crops are most impacted by the absence/overabundance of water? Whose boreholes will dry up first? Whose cattle will be the first to die off? You can see how even changes in rainfall are nothing more than catalysts for local social process, as the answers to these latter questions will vary dramatically, but in the context of trying to understand how things will play out, they are far, far more important than simple biophysical measures of the environment (or quantitative analyses of the economy, for that matter).
In other words, I think that any effort to really address the next famine before it happens is going to be long and extraordinarily involved – and is going to require the help of agencies, implementing partners, academics, affected governments, and the people on the ground living through these challenges. It sounds utopian . . . but it is not. It is necessary. To end up doing the Horn of Africa famine dance again in a few years for lack of ambition, or because of an unwillingness to take a hard look at how we think about development and how it does not work, is an outcome I cannot accept. We will be judged by history for how we respond (if you have doubts, feel free to read Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts and look at how the British come off).
Thu 21 Jul 2011
After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia. We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.
First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts. It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine. For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security. The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies. The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).
For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here). Famine stops at the Somali border. I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have. Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya. Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.
This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does. But it is not the most important thing. However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward. Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days. Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change. So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South. It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.
On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis. Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change. Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human. We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest. The bad news: Humans caused this. The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.
Thu 21 Jul 2011
We continue to scramble here – believe me, we are scrambling – the sheer volume of work taking place is staggering. In the meantime, please understand that as bad as things are at the moment, the relief effort MUST be done right because a) things are about to get much worse and b) they will stay worse, at least until December. We are trying not to sacrifice productive efforts to address the next 3-5 months in this region. To illustrate, two maps. The first is a map of current conditions:
As you can see, the two affected areas in southern Somalia (the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle) are highlighted. These are currently the only places where we have hit levels of suffering high enough to be labeled famine. Everywhere labeled “emergency” is pretty dire, but not a famine. Unfortunately, this situation has acquired momentum – as FEWS-NET summarizes:
The total failure of the October-December Deyr rains (secondary season) and the poor performance of the April-June Gu rains (primary season) have resulted in crop failure, reduced labor demand, poor livestock body conditions, and excess animal mortality. The resulting decline in cereal availability and ongoing trade restrictions have subsequently pushed local cereal prices to record levels and substantially reduced household purchasing power in all livelihood zones.
In other words, there is little local food available, no real jobs to earn money to buy imported food, and the livestock are dying, meaning livestock owners cannot sell them off for food (and they are not so great for eating once they get emaciated enough to die). This means that the resources people normally use to address challenges such as we are seeing in Somalia right now are being drawn down very, very rapidly – they are running out of things to sell, and therefore things to eat. On top of all of this, we cannot get in to these areas with our aid – so we cannot do anything, at the moment, to stop this backslide. The result is reflected in this map:
This reflects FEWS-NET’s projections for the outcomes of this backslide in August/September. As you can see, all of southern Somalia will soon fall into famine conditions. If we cannot get in there before then, our interventions will not be as effective as they could be . . . it is much easier to fight a small fire than to put out a burning house.
An interesting thing to note from these maps (I will post on this at length soon) – they show the importance of development. Where we could do development work (Ethiopia and Kenya), we do not have famine. Yes, things are dire, but nowhere near as dire as in Somalia, where we have not been able to work for two decades. The fact that things are dire in Kenya and Ethiopia means that development doesn’t work well enough . . . but it does work, at least a little.
Mon 28 Mar 2011
I sat through an outstanding FEWS-NET briefing today at work – some of the material falls under the heading of sensitive but unclassified (SBU), which basically means I can’t give details on it here. However, the publicly-available information from the briefing (link here – click on the near-term and medium-term tabs) makes it clear that there are really bad things taking place in parts of the Horn of Africa right now that are likely to result in large areas being extremely food insecure, which FEWS-NET defines as:
Households face substantial or prolonged shortfalls in their ability to meet basic food requirements. Reduced food intake is widespread, resulting in significantly increased rates of acute malnutrition and increasing mortality. Significant erosion of assets is occurring, and households are gradually moving towards destitution.
To summarize, people are dying due to food insecurity in the Horn of Africa right now, and it is going to get a whole lot worse for the next 6 or so months.
The briefing was very well run and presented, and the question session afterward was generally quite informative. FEWS-NET is a remarkable tool – I think it is probably the best food insecurity assessment tool in the world right now – and I am engaged with thinking about how to make their assessments and projections even more accurate. So I had a sort of technical disconnect from the meaning of the data during the briefing – to me, the numbers were data points that could be parsed differently to better understand what was actually taking place.
I returned to my desk, head buzzing with ways to reframe some of the analysis, but before I could get to writing anything down, an email came in telling me that the wife of one of my closest friends had passed away from ovarian cancer. She was 41, and leaves behind my friend and their very young son. For some reason, in that moment all of my data points became people, tens of thousands of mothers, fathers and children whose loss was beyond tragic.
That was it for me. I logged out, walked out of the office, and went to get my oldest daughter out of preschool an hour early. Somebody needs to parse the data, to reframe and retheorize what we see happening in places like the Horn of Africa so we can respond better and reduce the occurrence and impact of future events. But not me, not today.