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ANALYSIS OF FAMINE VULNERABILITY IN SAHELIAN AFRICA: IS "ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY" THE RIGHT PARADIGM?
Robert E. Ford
Assistant Professor of Geography and Earth Resources
College of Natural Resources
Utah State University
Implications of the recent U.S. intervention in Somalia to alleviate famine are briefly explored--particularly its implications for a new "geopolitics of food" and famine-related issues. Recent ideas expressed by famine researchers at the IGU (International Geographical Union) meetings in Washington, D.C. and Tufts University, Massachussetts concerning the "strategic pathways" of food security are explored and defined. A call for a focus on three major issues is presented: food entitlement, food empowerment, and food crisis management. Suggestions on how these approaches fit into an "environmental security" paradym are also presented.
For generations access to food resources, or a lack of it, which under extreme conditions is called famine, has been an important security issue facing societies of all types--from clan to nation-state. But though famine is indeed an old problem--one that geographers and other social scientists have been interested in for some time--I believe that the manner in which food insecurity and famine vulnerability are now expressing themselves pose threats to global socioeconomic, political, and environmental systems in ways that are more serious than ever experienced before.
This critical situation requires the implementation of new paradyms and analytical approaches--one that defines security in broader terms than hitherto utilized. This paper explores briefly how the new paradym of "environmental security" might assist the discipline of geography, and particularly "political ecology" to better grapple with the expanding human problem of food insecurity.
In a nutshell, the nature of food insecurity has changed primarily because the "world has grown smaller"--that is interdependence has made the world both more vulnerable to catastrophic famine at the same time that human society is less vulnerable--because it is potentially more capable of managing the threat. But which scenario will become reality is largely dependent on human volition and action in relation to a whole range of issues: trade, foreign aid, rapidly changing food technologies, as well as dramatic shifts in macro-economic, political, and social structures (see Lehman B. Fletcher as well as other works).
This volatile situation is both cause for optimism and pessimism. But more to the point, it is now clearer than ever that famine is more a "human-policy" problem than a purely "natural resource" one. Even though some writers such as Simon Dalby have critized "environmental security" as not being the appropriate model to address the problem, I am of the opinion that this paradym may still be helpful at this time given the rapidly evolving nature of the "New World Order" (or disorder). If used appropriately, I believe it has the potential for "getting the attention" of policy-makers and the public who are more comfortable with the notion of "security" rather than other alternative perspectives.
The Changing Nature OF Famine Research
Famine used to be primarily a local or sub-regional problem that was perceived as being largely dependent on the vagaries of natural endowments of climate, soil, water, or plant resources-what some call the "tyrrany of geography." The traditional geographical and anthropological methodology applied to the study of famine and other human-environment interactions was called "cultural ecology." This sub-discipline has a long history of studying nature-society relations--in France and Europe the field is better known as "anthropogeography" or the study of "human milieu" (see for example works by B.L. Turner, Robert Kates, et al).
This well-established sub-discipline up to the recent past focused almost exclusively on "societal adaptation"--the evolution of human survival mechanisms to "supply-side" factors that balanced "number of mouths to feed" in relation to local food production technology and the efficiency and quantity of labor per unit area of land. Numerous cultural ecologists have documented in great detail how local social groups and communities have adapted to a great diversity of micro-ecosystems (see the recent review by Karl Butzer of some of the more recent contributions by American "cultural ecologists").
The so-called "traditional ethno-ecological systems" that evolved around the world--from intensive horticultural to extensive pastoralist and hunter-gatherer systems--generally respected and adapted to nature's power and primacy in very local-specific ways. But when famine came--whether produced by "natural" means such as flood or drought or "human" agency such as a marauding warriors--causation was still largely explained by local peoples in terms of the supernatural, i.e. an "act of God" or punishment by demonic forces. Furthermore, most famines affected most social strata fairly equally--except for a very small privileged class in a few ancient civilizations--as exemplified by the case of the Pharaohs dependence on the "gift of the Nile."
But with the rise of the modern nation-state and macro-socioeconomic structures such as international commerce, colonialism, imperialism, and industrial agriculture, humans so changed the balance of power between nature and society that for the first time in human history survival depends heavily on integrated global social and environmental systems--systems that transcend the local community and region. And in the last half century this process has progressed to the point where nature itself is at risk to man's impact.
Unfortunately many social scientists, including some geographers and anthropologists, continue to view disasters or hazards--particularly famine--as if it were 1000 AD and not the beginning of the 21st century. That is many still perceive famine to be a "natural" disaster which by definition suggests causation is largely external to human action or mitigation, e.g. drought--even war is often seen as simply an "act of God". With this perspective, the outside observer may feel sympathy for famine "victims" (particularly when goaded by the long reach of television), and of course "for humanitarian reasons" he or she does feel impelled to assist them. But overall, implicitly or explicitly there still is the perception that famine is one of those "unsolvable human problems"; therefore, all we can really do is "send food" and wait for nature to heal itself.
In addition, even if we do attempt to search for solutions to the "hunger problem" we still tend to approach it as a technical "natural law" issue. If we are "optimists" we conclude that "if and when we learn how to control nature" better--through science and technology--we will produce enough food and thus eliminate hunger. Or conversely if we are "neo-Malthusian pessimists, the "answer" usually focuses on finding the right "population control" mechanism that can balance the food-people equation, e.g. develop a new contraceptive.
In either case, the solution is generally thought to be found in some external technical control mechanism. Or if a "solution" is not found, the "final solution" is expressed in some negative Darwinian scenario which postulates the "four horsemen" of famine, disease, war, and pestilence as "righting the balance". Unfortunately, these simplistic negative perspectives are still quite prevalent in both the public at large and even in policy-making and research circles.
In fact, earlier versions of the "Green Revolution" agricultural development strategy (and organizational entities such as the CGIAR institutes, e.g. IITA, CIMMYT, IRRI, ILCA) is predicated on the above-mentioned premise. And though the R & D carried out by the international agricultural research centers is often complex and impressive, conceptually it is no different than what every peasant farmer and herder has been doing for thousands of years--only the tools or techniques are more complex and costly.
In sum, the goal of this "bio-technic" approach is to stimulate a new "agricultural revolution" that will develop alternative food production techniques and crops, e.g. hybrids that will "solve the hunger problem" and "keep the four horsemen at bay" (see the recent article about Norman Borlaug the "father of the Green Revolution". For a discussion of the Nigerian "Green Revolution" situation and its relation to food security see the paper by Abe Goldman).
But I would like to suggest that because we are indeed entering a new world of global interdependence where the balance of power now tilts toward human-created systems and not nature, we must look at both the problem and solution to famine in totally different ways. And more to the point of this conference, I believe that we are indeed moving into a New World Order that does require radical restructuring of outdated Cold War patterns of thinking and acting?
In this regard, several critical questions come to mind. First, is famine indeed a "security threat" on par with narco-terrorism, arms proliferation, radical "fundamentalism" or neo-chauvinism and ultra-nationalism? Furthermore, how does famine rate in severity of threat in comparison to the much more publicized "environmental threats" of desertification, biodiversity loss, deforestation, or global climate change? And how does famine and food insecurity interact with the above threats?
It is my contention that famine is indeed a threat equal to many of the above problems. Furthermore, in many cases "food insecurity" may be the underlying fundamental problem and the above threats merely symptomatic of a general imbalance in nature-society relations created by man that ultimately will affect the human specie's very capacity to survive and feed itself--destruction of that survival capacity would be the ultimate food security threat! Therefore, I believe if we want to focus on fundamental causes and not just symptoms we must consider food insecurity in the broadest context--that is as a central issue around which many other other environmental security threats revolve.
How and Why is Famine an Environmental Security Threat
As proposed in the October 1992 issue of the ICSE Newsletter leading up to this conference, environmental security problems lend themselves to multiple levels or scales of analysis: "international, state, social groups and communities, and the individual level." Furthermore, as stated in the above article, our analysis must distinguish between "objective threats" "perception of threats" and "public policies."
Even a cursory look at the problem of famine at various geographic scales shows clearly that the environmental security paradym does allowe for productive analysis. What are some of the characteristics of famine that make if worth studying from this perspective? First of all, famine is much more than just a simple "supply-side" issue. As von Braun states:
The genesis of food crises cannot be understood with a focus on climatic and production variables (supply-side factors) alone. However, a sole focus on economic conditions and political crises does not comprehensively address causation either. The role played by economic variables at national and household levels (demand-side factors) has gained increasing prominence in recent years. Food insecurity, with its severest expression in famine, is the outcome of an interaction between environmental and socioeconomic factors, both in the short and the long terms, and a failure of policy to deal with them.
Work by several geographers studying famine vulnerability, have pointed out that "demand-side" (consumption) factors also have a very strong role to play in famine causation, population pressure (both positive and negative) as well as agricultural change. This means, of course, that such factors as terms-of-trade trade issues, agricultural intensification or "involution", political economic structures, human rights, ethics and values, debt and structural adjustment, technology transfer, inter-ethnic relations, and democratization, among many modern "human" factors, must be considered as well.
In fact, most serious famine researchers categorically state that poverty is the principal cause of food insecurity--this means that policy failures at the local, state, and international levels is where our analysis should focus if we are indeed serious about determining causation or implementing doable solutions. In this regard some geographers--who now refer to themselves "political ecologists"--are beginning to focus on the links between food insecurity, environmental degradation, and poverty in ways that closely approximates the "environmental security" paradym proposed by the ICSE Newsletter (see the article by Robert Kates and Viola Haarman "Where the poor live: are the assumptions correct?").
The above authors, among others also point out that the relationship between environment and poverty is not as simplistic as many have surmised, i.e. that "poor environments are directly correlated with poor people." In the case of the Sahel, for example, I have found over fifteen years of work in the region, that most popular and even quasi-scientific or policy literature tends to grossly oversimplify "the Sahelian problem" as primarily one of "desertification"--a supposed "natural" or "environmental" calamity that is "inherent" in the region. Unfortunately, this approach encourages a type of "ecological victimization" and "disentitlement" that greatly undervalues the broader "security" dimensions of famine vulnerability and environmental degradation--in some respects it a type of quasi-environmental determinism.
Whereas, if one objectively considers the actual "objective" food insecurity, agricultural, and political-economic situation of the various Sahelian countries at all scales of analysis--from household, to national, regional, or international levels--one finds considerable variation in famine vulnerability or hunger that is often at odds with supposedly "objectively measured" environmental/ecological parameters, e.g. population "carrying capacity." (Robert E. Ford and others have discussed some of the conceptual and technical problems associated with the use of the "carrying capacity" technique as applied to human-environment patterns of interaction).
So given some of the limitations of traditional cultural ecology--including carrying capacity studies, I have come to the conclusion that the "environmental security" paradym might be just the right "handle" on the complex global human-environmental problems facing the New World Order--particularly those focusing on desertification and famine vulnerability in Africa's rapidly degrading "arid lands".
In considering the case of famine vulnerability in Sahelian Africa, it is also wise to remember that drought is not a new phenomenon--what has changed is how modern society has adapted to drought. In addition, it is quite clear that "famine coping" strategies and behaviors are very closely correlated with power, social class, internal and external geopolitical relations, as well as numerous local ethnic and ecological factors that regional generalizations obscure (see Table 1 FEWS Vulnerability Levels which illustrates how an ongoing "famine early warning system" project functioning in the Sahel (funded by USAID) defines the human responses to famine); see also the tables/figures from the article on "carrying capacity" described earlier--they are reproduced at the end of this paper).
There is another major characteristic of today's famine vulnerability issue which is particularly novel--the way the public reacts to it because of the "social immediacy" of the event that television brings to the phenomenon. Just as television has been blamed or credited for "revolutionary" transformations of political structures in Eastern Europe and the the former USSR, so television created to a large measure the will and public demand for the U.S. Somalian intervention known as Operation Restore Hope; a similar situation occurred with the Kurdish and Bangladeshi interventions of the recent past.
These "humanitarian interventions"--including the role of public opinion and the media--raise many questions of a geopolitical as well as geoeconomic nature that are radically different from the Cold War era: questions regarding the changing nature of "sovereignty" and "human entitlement or empowerement" as well as the very definition of "national interest" and "security."
In sum, it seems clear to me, that where once isolated regional or local famines went by unoticed on the world stage, today such disastrous events are witnessed live on television in such gripping and soul-searching detail that polititians and military analysts alike ignore them to their peril. This fact underscores the inescapable fact that we live on "one earth"--the recent bestselling book by now Vice-President Elect Al Gore expresses very well the essence of this new "central organizing principle of global ecology" which he envisions paramount today.
Other recent events indicate a changed political dynamic as regards famine in Africa and elsewhere. For much of the last fifty years resource issues such as food and famine were not perceived as the central factors in interstate relations; in contrast, ideology was paramount (except of course for less discussed Big Power concerns over access to "strategic minerals", e.g. uranium in Niger or diamonds in South Africa). But since the Persian Gulf war of 1991 it seems clear that "resource conflict" has taken on new relevance and may in fact become a core security and geopolitical issue of the New World Order.
In the Persian Gulf case the conflict revolved considerably around access to petroleum resources though this aspect was frequently downplayed as "the real reason." There is also a growing literature that proposes that other "resource wars" may erupt in the Middle East and North Africa over other environmental resource assets--e.g. water--as between Libya and Egypt, Israel and Jordan. And in the case of food resources it is now quite clear--particularly after the December 1992 Somalia intervention--that food insecurity has become a Big Power issue as well--one central to the international community at large, i.e. the United Nations. Therefore, it seems clear that famine is now an issue of global concern--one that has definite interstate geopolitical as well as "geoeconomic" ramifications.
It is also fascinating that much of the changed perception in this arena is attributable to the increasing importance of "non-state actors" in international relations, e.g. civil society structures--NGO's and PVO's such as CARE, Medicins sans frontieres, OXFAM, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross (see article by Robert Livernash, "The growing influence of NGO's in the developing world"--it discusses the pivotal role of the NGOs at the recent "Rio Summit" in stimulating debate and action. Hopefully, the growing influence of transnational citizen's political and sustainable development movements will force states to confront the inadequacies of the state-centric system bequeathed the world in the modern era--many have pointed out the crucial influence of the "Greenbelt movement" in Kenya's recent movement toward multi-party elections.
Changing Perceptions of Famine By the Discipline of Geography
There are numerous cases throughout history and in recent wars in Africa and elsewhere during the 20th century, where food deprivation was "used as a weapon" or where attempts to gain access to "new food production assets" (e.g. lebensraum) was proposed by some belligerents as one of the reasons for war. This view was a particularly detestable aspect of the older geopolitik school of geographical thought popular early in this century--an idea that Hitler later applied to its ultimate end.
As suggested earlier, the focus of much of this early geopolitical and economic reasoning emphasized a simplistic "supply-dimension" of food (agricultural) production as it relates to population growth, territorial size, and state power. The goal of this geopolitical reasoning was an attempt to implement an autarkic model of economic and political relations. It also fit in well with the Darwinian model that became accepted by the realpolitik--balance-of-power school of thought in geopolitics. That perspective, unfortunately, still has credence--particularly among some ultra-nationalists and neo-isolationists.
But I believe that the "politics of food" and food insecurity in today's world is much more complex than envisaged by some of these older perspectives--new ones are demanded. As stated earlier, famine is not just a simplistic "supply-side" imbalance between population and resources in the food production (agricultural) sense within the boundaries of specific nation-states. We are indeed living on one earth--food insecurity has become a global "collective security" as well as political economic issue; therefore the solutions must also be approached and discovered in a collective manner.
This new reality forces us to pay more attention to the "demand-side" of the equation in famine vulnerability. In the last few months geographers working in the IGU (International Geographical Union) Study Group on Famine Research--held a conference at Tufts University, Massachussetts, August 4-7, 1992 to synthesize conceptual frameworks and compare research endeavours which are pursuing this approach. Following is a summary of key concepts from that synthesis; I am indepted to Hans Bohle of the University of Frieburg for the essence of the material presented at the IGU conference held in Washington, D.C. 1992. The ideas presented in my opinion are quite helpful in suggesting how famine might be considered as an issue confronting policy-makers as well as researchers in the New World Order.
First of all note that the "causal structure of famine vulnerability" is defined as revolving around three "strategic pathways"--see the theoretical model of vulnerability shown in the appendix of this paper. The "strategic pathways" are: a) entitlement protection and food security, b) empowerment and food as a basic human right, and c) political economy--focusing on crisis management and conflict resolution. Let us consider in turn briefly what is meant by each of these "strategic pathways" and what are their implications for famine research within an "environmental security" framework as proposed by ICSE and others at the Chantilly conference.
Note first that entitlement is defined as "economically determined command over food" which in turn is often best expressed in certain "indicators of food security":
a) food availability (production, demography).
b) food accessibility (physical, social).
c) food affordability (price scissors/relations).
d) food utilization (quality, losses).
e) nutritional outcomes (health).
Hans Bohle, and other IGU conference attendees, also noted that food security must consider the "subjective dimensions" and take a broader view--including defining "food security as attaining a secure and stable livelihood." And in analyzing food security focus must be placed on underlying processes such as:
a) identify decision-makers on entitlement distribution.
b) recognize that there are beneficiaries and losers.
c) analyze "entitlement crises" (both structural and conjunctural).
d) recognize arenas of conflict over entitlement.
When considering the issue of empowerment and food as a human right several key issues were pointed out:
a) Empowerment is the means of deciding upon and enforcing food entitlements.
b) Hunger and famine must be seen as political processes of disentitlement, disempowerment, and victimization.
c) Analysis of empowerment must identify actors in these processes, their interests, their capacities to pursue interests, how interests are in conflict, who decides, who benefits, and who loses: The actors might include:
-GOS and NGOs
The goal of this "empowerment approach" should be to explore ways a "right to food" can be implemented. Included should be consideration of how to move from "soft to hard law", "accountability", and "children's right as a focus".
The third "strategic pathway" considers issues of crisis management and conflict resolution. In the light of the Somalian U.S. and United Nations intervention, this aspect seems particularly appropriate for study at this time. The IGU conference attendees first of all defined "crises" as reflecting processes that are either "long-term structural" (internal, predictable) or "short term conjunctural" (external, unpredictable). In the case of the Sahel, it is clear that famine expresses itself in both ways--short and longterm.
Furthermore, this new approach suggests that when crises do occur it should be seen as a political, economic, socio-cultural and ecological process that "calls into question the structure of the social (food) system" and which points out a need for new solutions and decision-making. A particularly useful type of analysis would be that which points out how the powerful pursue crisis-management? Some of the possible ways this occurs was very much in evidence throughout the last few years in the cases of the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Haiti and other areas: a) distance/silence the vulnerable groups, b) solve the crisis at the expense of the powerless.
Related to how we approach crisis management must be an explicit rethinking of the whole concept of "limited/external intervention vs. sovereignty." In the case of Sudan, Somalia, or Liberia it is also evident that policy solutions and interventions in such situations must identify multiple actors and arenas for action that are frequently in conflict:
-traditional vs. modern sectors
-global vs. local interests
-divergent actors (state, institutions, informal groups)
-victims vs. victimizers
Finally, a new approach to famine research that builds on the environmental security paradym should consider some broader issues:
a) The need to analyse and develop strategies to end hunger--consider "what has to be done, by whom".
b) The need to recognize that research has a critical function in strategy-making.
c) The need to seek means for alliance-building.
d) The need to to continually evaluate ongoing attempts at solving hunger and famine by always questioning and assessing assumptions of policy interventions:
-who is being entitled, empowered, secured?
-who is being disentitled, disempowered, victimized?
The conclusion of the conference was that some of the key research foci should include:
a) a study of comparative case studies of metropolitan food systems, e.g. Cairo, Khartoum, Bamako, Gabarone, Madras.
b) a study of comparative case studies of rural-urban linkages (Mali, Botswana, Pakistan).
In this regard I might mention that I personally will be involved in doing a nation-wide study of "famine perception and vulnerability analysis" in Niger during the spring of 1993; originally the study was to take place in the Fall of 1992--I had hoped to present "tentative results" to this conference. I will present them at some future forum of ICSE.
From the perspective of a geographer "cultural/political ecologist" who is concerned with the issue of famine vulnerability, I would say that the days ahead will be challenging--both in terms of carrying out a research agenda as well as applying the findings in the realworld of international politics and policy-making. Environmental security as a paradym for analyzing famine vulnerability in Sahelian Africa appears to offer an appropriate and timely methodology; I will be testing it in several specific country cases--Burkina Faso and Niger as well as following up on the evolving intervention in Somalia. I will keep you abreast of my successes and failures in this endeavor--wish me luck!
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