Poverty and Environmental Hazards - The Natural And Human-made Disaster Of Famine
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Famine is the phenomenon of large-scale starvation in a population because of a severe shortage of food or a lack of access to food. It can be caused by natural occurrences such as drought, flooding, or pestilence, or it can be the result of war, in which food is used as a weapon, or even unwise government policies. It is, overall, one of the most devastating events human beings can experience and one of the most dramatic and emotional from the point of view of spectators worldwide. For centuries, periodic famines were a more or less normal part of human existence, mostly because of crop failure. However, within the past 200 years or so famines have occurred as a result of economic and political manipulations. For example, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 to 1849, which killed an estimated 500,000 to one million people, was caused by a combination of factors, including a naturally occurring potato fungus that ruined crops, Irish property law, and British import-export practices that had some Irish food producers actually exporting crops to England while the Irish were literally starving to death.
Famines in modern times almost exclusively afflict the poor, and in general they afflict those who are the most poor with greatest frequency and most serious effect. Modern, developed countries have sufficient wealth and infrastructure that they do not suffer from famines except under the most extraordinary of circumstances. The most recent famine in a developed country was in the Netherlands in 1944, when an exceptionally difficult winter combined with the destruction caused by World War II caused at least 30,000 Dutch people to starve to death. Poorer, underdeveloped regions have suffered many famines since that time, however. People in these areas may have difficulty meeting their basic needs during the best of times, and when disaster strikes it can become impossible for them to find enough food to eat. This is especially true for the poorest members of these societies.
International relief organizations use a five-level scale to categorize the severity and magnitude of famines: food secure; food insecure; food crisis, famine; severe famine; and extreme famine. A famine that results in fewer than 1,000 deaths is considered a minor famine; one that results in one million or more deaths is a catastrophic famine.
Ethiopia: The "Face of Famine"
The Ethiopian famine in 19847#x2013;85 was the result of nearly all the contributing factors to famine—drought, war, politics, and pestilence—coalescing in a single country. By 1986 at least one million people had starved to death. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ethiopia's famine was the international outrage it provoked and the public response it elicited, ushering in a period of international charitable donation that continues more than twenty years later.
WAR AND POLITICS IN ETHIOPIA
Engaged in a civil war with its northern province of Eritrea since 1960, Ethiopia was taken over in 1974 by a pro-Soviet military junta called the Derg. In the early 1970s the country had experienced a drought and subsequent famine, from which it had not fully recovered by the end of the decade. With the Derg focusing on insurgencies that had sprung up in all of Ethiopia's regions by 1976, government spending was directed toward increasing military power rather than addressing crop failure. By the late 1970s another drought was beginning, and by the early 1980s famine was inevitable. The war with Eritrea cut off relief supplies through the north, and anti-Soviet Eritrean rebels, backed by the United States, took control of all of Ethiopia's sea ports, further isolating the country's hungry citizens and damaging its economy. Further complicating matters was Ethiopia's agricultural economy, which had focused for many years on growing crops for export, especially coffee, rather than for its own subsistence.
IMAGES OF DEATH BROADCAST AROUND THE WORLD
By March 1984 the Ethiopian government appealed to the international community for aid, but Western leaders were reluctant to send money to a pro-Soviet country that was known for its military spending. In the summer of 1984 European countries had surplus crops, but none of the food was sent to Ethiopia. Then in October 1984, with 200,000 people already dead and eight million more at risk of starvation, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news crew in Tigray province in northern Ethiopia covered the story, taking photographs and footage of the dead and dying and broadcasting them to the world. One image in particular, of a little girl named Birhan Woldu who was apparently about to die, caught the public's attention and became known as the "face of famine." Although the girl survived and has become an international symbol for hope, the image of her emaciated face, delirious from hunger, motivated people around the world to donate to emergency relief funds for the country. According to BBC News Online's Kate Milner ("Flashback 1984: Portrait of a Famine," April 6, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/703958.stm), relief agencies received donations totaling nearly £5 million in just three days from the United Kingdom alone.
THE ETHIOPIAN GOVERNMENT'S SOLUTION
In December 1984 the situation had become completely chaotic. Although international aid was beginning to enter the country, Ethiopian leaders were intercepting the supplies, first to keep them away from insurgents in the regions fighting for independence, and second to divert them to their own soldiers. Thousands of starving Ethiopians—refugees from both the war and the famine—were fleeing to Sudan every day. The arrival of relief supplies in villages set off riots, with people desperate to get food for their children. In 1985–86 the government imposed a policy of resettlement, with the military forcibly moving those in the northern portions of the country south and relocating peasants into planned villages around such services as water, utilities, medical care, and schools. However, the services promised by Ethiopian leaders were rarely provided, and food production throughout the country actually declined. In 1985–86 Ethiopian crops were hit with a wave of locusts, which destroyed much of the harvest.
BAND AID AND LIVE AID
On October 23, 1984, BBC journalist Michael Buerk reported on the famine from Ethiopia. Among his television audience was Irish pop singer Bob Geldof of the post-punk-era band Boomtown Rats. That night Geldof telephoned another British pop musician, Midge Ure of the band Ultravox, with a plan to record a song about the famine and donate all the proceeds to relief efforts. Just over a month later, on November 25, more than forty of the United Kingdom's most famous pop musicians—including U2's lead singer Bono, who would go on to become one of the most visible celebrities to campaign for poverty relief—were assembled under the name Band Aid in a recording studio to produce the single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Released on December 3, the song became the best-selling single in UK history at the time and generated about $13 million for Ethiopian famine relief.
In the summer of 1985 Geldof and Ure organized Live Aid, a worldwide concert with venues in London, Philadelphia, Sydney, and Moscow that featured some of best-known pop musicians of the time and was broadcast in 100 countries to an estimated 1.5 billion viewers. The concerts raised approximately $245 million for famine relief and ushered in a new era of charity events with celebrity participants that continues into the twenty-first century. For his efforts, Geldof was knighted in England and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was re-recorded by different sets of popular singers once in 1985 (Band Aid II) and again in 2004 (Band Aid 20), with the proceeds going to poverty relief through Geldof's organization, Band Aid Trust.
ONE FAMINE ENDS, ANOTHER BEGINS
In early 2006 the entire Horn of Africa region, which includes Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti, was in danger of experiencing another food crisis. According the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), as of January 2006 an estimated eleven million people in these countries were at risk of starvation because of drought and ongoing violent conflict. The FAO reported that at least eight million people in Ethiopia, 2.5 million in Kenya, two million in Somalia, and 150,000 in Djibouti were expected to be dependent on food aid at least through the summer of 2006 ("Millions of People Are on the Brink of Starvation in the Horn of Africa," January 6, 2006, http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2006/1000206/index.html).