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Advanced Countries and the Horn of Africa

Winter 2012 Nez À Nez

Advanced Countries and the Horn of Africa

Proposition: Advanced countries have a duty to help feed the Horn of Africa

James Radner is Assistant Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto (against): A terrible human catastrophe is unfolding day by day in the Horn of Africa. Innocent people are dying, or suffering permanent impairment, for want of food. Individually, as families, and collectively, as nations, we in the industrialized world have resources that could help, and I urge everyone to give generously to avert suffering and death. If there is one thing that people will take away from this debate, may it be a refreshed commitment to stretch ourselves to relieve the Horn.

Why then, beyond perversity and self-subversion, am I saying ‘No’ to the proposition before us? It is because I think that ‘duty’ is the wrong way to look at this, and the wrong basis upon which to decide what to do. Webster’s defines ‘duty’ as “a moral or legal obligation” – something binding. I do not see such an obligation here, and I would not want to try to convince a friend who prefers to spend the resources on, say, a humanitarian cause closer to home – or, more provocatively, for some other type of purpose altogether, like recreation – that she is guilty of shirking.

What – if not a duty – do we have in the face of the famine in the Horn? We have, I think, a choice: we are not bound to offer any particular level of support, and we are entitled, as we choose whether and how to act, to take account of a full range of factors. When we choose as individuals, these factors will include our own life circumstances and the needs of our families. When we choose as nations, they will include considerations of national interest and Realpolitik. But if we cannot – as we make our individual and collective choices – find within ourselves an abiding and genuinely motivating compassion for the afflicted, then I think that we have lost a vital part of our own humanity.

John W. McArthur was, until recently, the CEO of Millennium Promise, and taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (for): You and I agree that the hunger, suffering, and starvation affecting more than 13 million people in the Horn of Africa merits urgent action and financing. Everything else is secondary to this first-order agreement.

In that context, you make an interesting case regarding why it is the right thing to do, rejecting notions of duty and obligation, and arguing instead for notions of choice – whether guided by household budget constraints or national interests. I have two main reactions to this argument. The first is entirely pragmatic. I am generally agnostic as to the variety of motivations that different people draw upon when deciding to help solve a problem. For example, many people are inspired by religious beliefs. Many follow secular theories of justice. Some people are driven by security concerns. Still others are motivated by economic interests – short- or long-term. One could easily and legitimately cite any of these schools of thought in order to motivate humanitarian action in the Horn.

If one is focussed primarily on solving the problem on the ground, then, at a practical level, it matters little why one might, say, support the World Food Program to provide emergency food relief and, in turn, invest in local systems to support food security. What matters is that the relief is delivered, and that the local investments are made. The world’s most powerful coalitions for good have been formed when a variety of groups and interests have come together to solve a problem. The past decade’s campaigns to scale up AIDS treatment and malaria control, for example, drew upon leaders from academia, religion, industry, politics and non-profit organizations around the world – each of whom brought his or her distinct blend of motivations. But all of these leaders were united by an interest in solving the problem at hand.

The second reaction is more philosophical, and focusses on the questions of duty and obligation. I probably take a harder line than you on this, since I believe that rich countries and their citizens do have an obligation to support humanitarian emergencies and development investments in low-income countries – primarily because it costs so little for us to do so. In December of last year, the World Food Program – which is financed entirely through voluntary contributions – declared the need for an extra US $92 million for the first four months of 2012. Spread across the one billion people living in the rich world, this works out to nine cents per person. If a country like Canada were to pick up the tab on its own, it would cost less than US $3 per Canadian. Indeed, the entire consolidated UN humanitarian appeal for 2012 is US $7.7 billion to support 51 million beneficiaries across 16 countries, at an average of US $151 worth of goods and services per beneficiary for the year. This works out to US $7.70 per person in the rich world, where average incomes now top US $40,000 per annum. To be sure, this is hardly the stuff of existential trade-offs.

If we do not think that human lives are worth $7.70 of our resources, then we would not just be failing to meet our obligations to humanity; we would be failing to meet our obligations to promote a secure and stable world – and thereby to protect our own countries, our communities, our families and ourselves. Yes, we can always choose not to meet such obligations and reject any sense of duty. But to do so would be very unwise.

JR: I will approach your pragmatic point with a dose of philosophy, and then your philosophical point with a dose of pragmatism.

First, philosophy. In the aftermath of WW2, the nascent UN decided to develop an international bill of rights. As part of that process, they appointed – believe it or not – an official commission of philosophers, drawn from diverse cultural and religious traditions worldwide, to work out a truly universal basis for human rights. They found that they could agree on the equal worth and dignity of human beings, but not on the reasons underpinning this equal worth and dignity. They could agree on a set of basic rights to guide how governments treat people, but they could not agree on what a ‘right’ actually is. As a result, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 1948, included an enumeration of rights – but without a hoped-for preamble elaborating the source of these rights.

This approach to rights brings to mind the Rawlsian concept of ‘overlapping consensus,’ in which people with divergent ethical and ideological commitments can nevertheless agree on social and political action. Your description of the remarkable recent achievement of a wide variety of international actors in marshalling resources to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis fits the same pattern. The members of that overlapping consensus – from evangelical Christian conservatives to leftist activists, to people who would not place themselves on a left-right spectrum at all – could never have agreed on questions of ‘duty’ or reasons to act, but they could coalesce around a choice to act. What they started needs more support still. In the meantime, however, I want to encourage just such a coalition – based on free, diversely grounded, but humane choice – to fight hunger in the Horn of Africa.

Your second main point – that the cost to fight hunger is nine cents from each of us – is unanswerable; it is a philosophical slam dunk. To debate the underlying reasons for such an outlay would be to dance on the head of a pin. Instead, we need to shout your words from the rooftops, and come up with the money, pronto. Alas, as you know from deeper experience than my own, the pragmatics of humanitarian intervention can be complex indeed. In 1992, the administration of President George H.W. Bush concluded that it needed to dispatch US forces to deliver food in the same territory that is again famished now. After 18 of those soldiers lost their lives in Mogadishu, the Clinton administration conducted a year-long ‘lessons learned’ review and produced the restrictive Presidential Decision Directive 25. That, in turn, led to disastrous inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide.

Security and authorization issues present important challenges for the humanitarian mission in Somalia today. I can only admire the courage and sacrifice of the international aid workers there. I hope that they will be safe, and that the question of sending soldiers to protect them will not even arise this time. If it does, however, there will be no slam dunk arguments, and claims about our duties will not get us even to the mid-court line. Nor will Decision Directive 25. We need to bring to humanitarian crises a decision-making framework that enables complex, prudential choices – without ever forgetting that we belong to one human family.

JM: You raise additional important points that help advance the discussion – moving from questions of ‘whether’ to those of ‘how.’ As for the substance of how to proceed in the Horn, a first step for any solution is to provide life-saving food and medical assistance to those affected by the crisis – including the more than 700,000 Somali refugees now living in Ethiopia and Kenya. A second key step is too often overlooked: emergency feed and veterinary support for the region’s pastoralist communities, whose livelihoods hinge on the fate of their livestock – including goats, camels and cattle. Protecting these critical assets will help those communities to maintain a buffer in order to escape the other side of the dry season with as much resilience as possible.

A third step is to understand the deeper drought dynamics underpinning the crisis, and to initiate a strategy that will help the region to grow more food and livestock in order to prevent future crises. The region faces the same basic long-term decline in precipitation as the rest of the Sahel – a problem that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted as one of the world’s most significant changes in climate patterns since the 1970s. (For now, I leave aside the responsibilities of advanced economies to mitigate further climate changes – although we need to connect those dots at a policy level, too.) Livestock support is needed for the pastoralists, and a ‘green revolution’ strategy is needed to ensure that farmers in the food-growing regions use the basic inputs that are typically still out of reach: fertilizer, high-yield seed, and irrigation. A hundred dollars for two bags of fertilizer is still too expensive for most farmers in the region, so smart subsidies are needed (see how Malawi doubled its national food production from 2005). Irrigation expansion represents a deeper challenge, since it brings major economic returns, but requires capital outlays of perhaps US $3,000 or more per hectare. A real strategy requires large-scale private credit mechanisms matched with public finance guarantees in order to compensate for the most severe risks.

A fourth step is to recognize and tackle the population pressures that are driving competition for scarce resources across the Horn. In 1950, the combined population of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia was 27 million people. By 2000, it was 105 million. By 2010, it had ballooned further to 134 million. In 20 years, it is projected to be 200 million people. In addition to food and nutritional security, we need to invest in child survival and girls’ secondary education across the region – both as ends in themselves and as key inputs to a rapid voluntary decline in fertility rates.

Finally, there are legitimate debates about how best to address the security components of the crisis – particularly in Somalia. Here we need to avoid unduly militarizing the situation even further, and we need to recognize that political conflicts often have deep underlying roots in climate and food insecurity – as the Berkeley economist Edward Miguel and colleagues have shown persuasively through their research. I am not a security expert and do not pretend to have a simple answer for tackling those dimensions of the crisis, but I do hope that the security-focussed minds are including agriculture, livestock, water and health as centrepieces of all of their strategies.

JR: Pressures of population and drought are undoubtedly key causes of the famine in the Horn, but they are not the only ones. Neighbouring Kenya, for example, faces similar pressures, but has handled them far better (though no one should be complacent about Kenya). The main difference is that Somalia remains a failed polity. I would warn that we in the West have very little understanding about how to help to remedy such failures. A first step might be to consider our own past role.

When the West found it expedient to pour Cold War aid into Siad Barre’s regime, the aid became an enabler for a rapacious state that worked to grab control of Somalia’s core resources – arable land in the river valleys, the trade-driven pastoralist economy of the north and, paradoxically, the flow of Western aid itself. The result was a combination of dispossession and winner-take-all incentives – oddly resembling dynamics in ‘resource curse’ polities elsewhere in Africa. Both of these baleful effects survived the post-Cold War collapse of Barre’s state; the 1992 intervention only reinforced the pernicious idea that centralized power could monopolize Somalia’s internal and external resources.

My caution, as aid flows increase, is that we must avoid once again creating a central stream of resources over which factions will be inclined to fight. A more localized approach that nurtures existing social and economic bright spots might work better. The most obvious such bright spot (obvious because it is on such a large scale, and because it is not closed to the outside world) is Somaliland, where the animal husbandry and trade are again on the rise, and where, not coincidentally, the breakaway statelet has achieved a measure of democratic stability. Somalis are a remarkably entrepreneurial and mercantile people, who do have the capacity to govern themselves. They have a vibrant, economically successful diaspora. We should support and encourage these advantages in the very pragmatic spirit that you have articulated, but without imagining that we can somehow ‘solve’ Somalia, and without letting despair become a reason to turn our backs on starving children.

JM: You aptly underscore the need to be mindful of local institutional settings when intervening in any humanitarian emergency. Despite Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “all politics is local,” there are countless situations in which local politics interplays with global actors toward painful ends. Poor countries are especially at risk of external meddling, and short-sighted strategic or ideological approaches commonly backfire. Somalia is undoubtedly one of the world’s thorniest theatres for crafting external support, given the suffering that has resulted from a complex mix of internal conflicts, international interventions and geostrategic interests, alongside deep ecological stresses. And – to be sure – the external actors as regional as they are global: both the Ethiopian and Kenyan governments have been overt in their military clashes with local leaders.

Nonetheless, the challenges in Somalia should not distract from the fact that the majority of people affected by the crisis are in Ethiopia and Kenya. Of the estimated 13.3 million people needing humanitarian assistance, only about five million are Somali – including four million inside the country and nearly one million refugees in neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, nearly 4.6 million Ethiopians have been affected – according to UN figures – along with 3.8 million Kenyans and 180,000 Djiboutians. The map of crisis zones extends southward almost to Nairobi.

A final point is that we need to be much more systematic in anticipating and preventing these food-based challenges, of which there will surely be many more in the years ahead. To their credit, Oxfam and Save the Children have just issued a tough assessment of the international response to the Horn in 2011 – including their own. They describe months of undue delay as warnings went unheeded. They stress the need to overcome a culture of risk aversion – the bane by which people are blamed for mistakes of action, but no one is responsible for the tragedies of inaction. They also wisely recommend a development-based approach to minimizing the risk of emergencies. The world has come a long way in building health systems that can track and mitigate emergent infectious diseases. We need to be similarly robust in tackling the risks and causes of famine. Tomorrow’s emergency can be prevented – at lower cost – with practical investments today.


James Radner is Assistant Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, where he also directs the Boreal Institute for Civil Society, an action research group in domestic and international human development.

John W. McArthur was, until recently, the CEO of Millennium Promise, and taught at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Previously, he was Deputy Director and Manager of the UN Millennium Project. He is currently a Senior Fellow with the UN Foundation.

(Photograph: OXFAM/Wikimedia Commons)

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