July 28, 2011

More than 12 million people are at risk of death and starvation in the Horn of Africa. Even if they do not perish, young children are likely to suffer the lifelong effects of malnutrition, including poor brain development. While reactions of grave concern over this unfolding tragedy are natural, its causes are not. Most commentators cite the worst droughts since the 1950s and security concerns in southern Somalia as the main reasons for the crisis. Taken alone, however, these explanations are deeply flawed.

Drought and insecurity certainly contribute to the current crisis, but more fundamental causes are at play. Drought is not a new environmental condition for much of Africa but a recurring one. The semi-arid Horn of Africa and the entire Sahelian region — running just south of the Sahara Desert across the continent — have long experienced erratic rainfall. While climate change may be exacerbating rainfall variability, traditional livelihoods in the region are adaptable to deal with situations when rainfall is not dependable.

The dominant livelihood in the Horn of Africa has long been herding. Traditionally, herders ranged widely across the landscape in search of better pasture, focusing on areas as meteorological conditions dictated. The approach worked because, unlike fenced-in pastures in North America, it was incredibly flexible and adapted to variable rainfall. As farming has expanded, including in some instances to large-scale commercial farms, the routes of herders have become more concentrated and more vulnerable to drought. The change from traditional practices has also become detrimental to the landscape. In Ethiopia, large land leases (or “land grabs”) to foreign governments and companies for export crops (such as palm oil, rice and sugar) have further exacerbated this problem.

Agricultural livelihoods have also evolved in problematic ways. In anticipation of years of poor rainfall, farming households and communities historically stored surplus crop production. Sadly, this traditional strategy for mitigating the risk of drought was undermined from the colonial period, beginning in the late 19th century, as households were encouraged (if not coerced by taxation) to grow cash crops for the market and store less and less excess grain for potential bad years. This increasing market orientation has also been encouraged by development banks. Growing crops for market worked fine as long as cheap and plentiful grain was available for purchase, a trend that began to erode in 2000 as global food prices gradually rose.

Just as death from exposure is not an inherent result of a cold winter, famine is not a natural consequence of drought. Simply put, the structure of human society often determines who is affected and to what degree.

While the nations of the world must act immediately to address the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, working to ensure prompt delivery and distribution of food aid, these same countries must also consider the underlying causes of the crisis as they seek longer-term solutions. Many, including the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, have spoken about the need for a strategy to rebuild food security in the region.

The problem is that the USAID plan for agricultural development in Africa has stressed a “New Green Revolution” involving improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. While this energy-intensive approach may make sense in some contexts, it is financially out of reach of the poorest of poor farmers, who are the most likely to face food shortfalls. A more realistic approach would play down imported seeds and commercial agriculture in favor of enhanced traditional approaches to producing food for families and local markets.

Ethiopia, a key recipient of U.S. aid in the Horn of Africa region, should also be strongly discouraged from granting long-term leases of its farmland to foreign entities when it struggles to feed its own people in years of poor rainfall.

Finally, the crisis in the Horn of Africa has been aggravated by high food prices worldwide. Global food prices reached a historic high in February, surpassing the spikes of 2007-08, which had been the highest recorded in 20 years. While current prices are related, in part, to bad weather, other significant factors include high energy prices, the increasing diversion of grain for the production of biofuels, and export restrictions.

With energy and food prices likely to remain high for months to come, Africa can no longer count on cheap imported food or afford to shift to energy-intensive crop production strategies. The path to improved food security lies in improving time-tested local approaches, which are attuned to local environmental conditions.

The writer is a professor of geography and African studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He previously worked for Save the Children (UK) on food security issues in Africa.