Given the dramatic decline in famines and famine-related deaths from 1980s, many felt that the era of mass starvation was finally over. However, currently about 30 million people in three African countries (Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan) and Yemen are at risk of famine and starvation. Although UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has described these famines as the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN, the Indian media has paid scant attention to the crisis. This despite the fact that Africa is officially India’s top priority in foreign policy matters after the neighbourhood. The Indian media prefers to devote much of its attention to the government’s initiatives in Africa and little else.
According to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 5.1 million people in northeastern Nigeria are severely food insecure. Barely six years after the last famine, which killed more than a quarter of a million people, Somalia is threatened by another famine. More than half of the country’s population – about 6.7 million people – are acutely food insecure, out of which 3.2 million are coping with severe food insecurity. In February, the UN formally declared a famine in South Sudan where 100,000 persons are affected by famine and another 5.5 million are severely food insecure. But the world’s largest hunger emergency is in Yemen, where about 17 million persons or roughly 60% of the population are severely food insecure and require urgent humanitarian assistance.
What could possibly explain the occurrence of four famines in the modern world? After all, famine warning and response systems today are far more superior than anything that existed in the past. Thanks to improved transport systems, it is also very easy to move food to food-deficient regions from other countries. In fact, figures from the World Peace Foundation reveal that between 1870s and 1970s, great famines killed between 1.45 million and 16.6 million people, at an average of 927,810 persons per year. Since the 1980s, the annual death toll in famines has declined dramatically to only about 75,217 persons. The global decline in famines and famine-related deaths is now being reversed, mainly due to conflict.
In northeastern Nigeria, the insurgency by Boko Haram has completely disrupted food production, food markets and food availability. About 20,000 persons have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes. According to the estimates of the World Food Programme, about 200,000 refugees are registered in neighbouring countries of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. In Somalia, the conflict between Al-Shabab and the Somali government has severely affected food production and is also hindering relief aid from reaching the affected persons. In South Sudan, conflict has not only prevented farmers from planting or harvesting their produce but also rendered the food supply line from Uganda dysfunctional. But Yemen presents the worst case scenario. The war between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels has completely disrupted the supply and distribution of food. Given that about 90% of the food requirement in Yemen was met by imports, the collapse of the commercial food imports has led to the current humanitarian crisis.
The response from the international community, though slow initially, has been predictable. Countries like the UK, Norway, Germany and Australia have pledged millions in humanitarian assistance for these countries. After much criticism for humanitarian aid budget cuts, US President Donald Trump also pledged $639 million in aid to the four affected countries. However, given that conflict is the main reason behind the famines, humanitarian assistance alone is likely to be of little help. Any meaningful solution to the human suffering lies in conflict resolution. Sadly, the role of the international community in this regard has been rather dissatisfactory.
Countries like the US and UK could have exerted pressure on Saudi Arabia to end the bombing in Yemen and push for peace, but they chose to contribute to the crisis by selling arms to Saudi Arabia worth $110 billion and $3.9 billion respectively. Many of the Saudi attacks on Yemen breach international law, but unlike other instances of human rights violations, Western powers have chosen to be silent. Moreover, at Saudi insistence, albeit with help from the US and the UK, the UN Security Council has imposed a blockade on Yemen. Although there’s an exemption for food, the inspection procedures are very slow. A Saudi aircraft has also bombed the container docks at Al-Hodeida so that all ships must now be unloaded in the old-fashioned way, which further slows the process. Food is thus the biggest weapon in the Yemen war.
Sadly, the entire discourse on famines overemphasises humanitarian aid pledges and misses out these issues. In fact, humanitarian aid from the West can at best be described as hypocrisy, particularly in the case of Yemen. Alex De Waal, a noted expert on famines, regards famines as a crime and presses for greater accountability from political leaders.
As a rising power, India can’t afford to remain silent on a humanitarian crisis of this scale. This is particularly true in case of Africa, because India has very close ties with African countries.
Moreover, food security has been a key theme in India’s development partnership with Africa since the second India-Africa Forum Summit held in Addis Ababa in 2011. Therefore, India must play a more active and visible role in the current crisis in African countries. Apart from the three countries which are at risk of famine, other countries in Africa like Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are also extremely food insecure due to severe droughts. Given India’s commitment towards Africa’s food and nutrition security in the Delhi Declaration 2015 signed during the third India-Africa Forum Summit held in New Delhi, India must not shy away from assuming leadership in helping African nations at this hour. With regard to Yemen, India’s response has again been limited to evacuating Indians from war-affected regions. But given that the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula form part of India’s extended neighbourhood and India has multiple interests in the region including oil imports, India needs to play a bigger role in the Yemen conflict.
Malancha Chakrabarty is an associate fellow at Observer Research Foundation.