Famine in Ethiopia (1958-1977)

One of the earliest comprehensive works on famine in Ethiopia was "Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia, 1958-1977", written by Mesfin Wolde Mariam (published 1986). The author is noteworthy for a career advocating for human rights, for which he was nominated for the Sakharov Prize, and also for which he was imprisoned by the Government of Ethiopia in 2005. While his life is worthy of many more words, in what follows, I focus on his book on famine:

The author shifts attention away from environmental conditions, and toward two others: the mode of production (subsistence agriculture) and oppression along with exploitation.

  • Mode of production: "If we accept the fact that, in general, subsistence producers are essentially and almost exclusively engaged in producing for themselves and their families on a harvest-to-harvest basis without any reserves of food or cash to carry them over a critical period, then we have recognized a system that is falsely self-sufficient and unreasonably reliant on the capricious physical conditions of the environment and the exploitative socio-economic organization of the society. It is precisely the false self-sufficiency and the groundless reliance on the physical conditions, and the persistent exploitation, that render subsistence production basically vulnerable to famine" (p. 24).
  • Exploitation and oppression: "We are now, it seems [following an analysis of the findings], on much better ground to emphasize that the subsistence production system is the root of the famine, and that the persistent oppressions and exploitations of peasants by socio-economic and political forces rather than occasional aberrations of the natural forces are the decisive factors of vulnerability to famine" (p. 173). When "peasants are forced to pay taxes even when their gross production is insufficient to meet their subsistence requirements, taxation turns into a brutal form of legalized exploitation" (p. 186), for which, Wolde Mariam notes, they benefit nothing.

Wolde Mariam also refutes commonly argued causes of famine, including one that places significant blame on colonialism. While accepting the disasters colonialism wrought, the exploitation it created and the harm caused, he also believes such an argument implies the "peoples and governments of the Third World are mere objects that cannot be called upon to account for their own ills. They are only there to be manipulated by this or that master mind. Such implicitly condescending arguments are extremely dangerous, dangerous because they incapacitate the peoples, especially the ruling elite of the Third World, from accepting the responsibility for their own condition, and for their own actions and inactions" (p. 132).

Given the book was written in 1986, there are a number of quotable points Mesfin Wolde Mariam makes:

  • "The slow and grinding action of famine which perhaps originates in one poor harvest starts a process that reduces the harvest of subsequent years. Famine prolongs and intensifies famine" (p. 63).
  • "Bureaucratic capitalism in its primitive form and most ruthless form becomes the instrument of oppression and exploitation, especially of the disorganized and weakest majority of the population" (p. 16)
  • "The undue idealization of the small peasant plots is a retrogressive view comparable to the well-known anthropologists' appeal 'to leave the native alone'… It is idle to believe that agricultural development can take place on miniscule farms where the majority of the population would remain permanently tied to the land" (p. 136-137).

Wolde Mariam draws on Tawney's description of the peasant situation, similar to a person standing permanently up to the neck in water, where ripples can be disastrous. And, yet, no "matter how strongly the peasants feel the injustice, the oppression, and the exploitation, as realists they find it better to rely on their commonsense and almost inexhaustible patience than on rebellion, which, even it is materializes, will almost certainly fail to achieve any purpose" (p. 18). For the solutions, or recommendations for reducing vulnerability to famine, Wolde Mariam suggests:

  • Social services: "We can also state more emphatically the urgent need for a development policy that is committed to welfare of the masses of Ethiopian peasants" (p. 173).
  • Participation: "by allowing the peasant masses to articulate their own problems and priorities, and by restoring to them their self-confidence and self-respect in order to mobilize their energy and resources to improve their own conditions of living" (p. 179). "It is idle to expect the rural people of Ethiopian to cooperate whole-heartedly in a plan or project that they rightly or wrongly believe is outside the realm of their pressing needs. In such instances, they can only become passive spectators, or, at the most, reluctant participants that will forget the whole thing as soon as the pressure it off them. This is why it is necessary for the new administrators to work with the people by allowing them a large measure of involvement in identifying problems, in setting priorities, in allocating resources, and in deciding the course of action" (p. 185).
  • Access to information: "There is no doubt that the detail and accuracy as well as the speed and efficiency of processing and transmitting information are crucial, particularly in an impending famine situation" (p. 104). However, the problem "is not only the lack of data at a lower level of aggregation, there is also the problem of access to available information. Individuals or institutions that wish to do research are constricted by the problem of the quantity and quality of data they have to use" (p. 181).
  • Control and regulation: "by tightly controlling the governmental and market forces through a responsible and responsive administrative structure in which the peasants should actively and decisively participate" (p. 179)
  • Caution with foreign aid: "It is important to bear in mind that foreign aid, as such, is not inconsequential. What makes it inconsequential, or even harmful, is the inability of the recipients to determine their own needs and priorities, and to insist on aid for specific purposes, on one hand, and the desire of the donors to create new needs and to strengthen the dependence of the recipients on them, on the other. It is the fact that most foreign aid is determined not by the needs of the recipient countries but by the needs of the donor countries that makes it ineffective" (p. 113)
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Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry

I enjoy reading books in the international development sphere than are dated. Sometimes it is encouraging to see how far the sector has come, and at other times it is depressing how little has changed. These books are often sources of inspiration for ideas, while at the same time provide a better grounding on where ideas come from – we often see a recent citation about a particular concept, when in fact it has much deeper, unacknowledged roots. Thus, I dug into Michael Watts nearly 700 page tome: "Silent Violence: Food, Famine & Peasantry in Northern Nigeria" (1983). The book was written the same year as another essential reading, "Rural Development" by Chambers (1983).

Watts sets out the key research questions at the outset: "Why has this crisis arisen [1980s], what are its historic origins, and why do food systems periodically break down completely? Why, in other words, do famines occurs and how have their genesis and effects changed through time?" (p. xxi). The author takes readers on a journey in this book exploring these questions in the context of northern Nigeria, and more specifically the area of the former Sokoto Caliphate. In addressing these questions, the author focuses on "the social dimensions of drought and, as a corollary, on the social production of famine" (p. xxii) as opposed to the environmental or biological foci that were common in the 1980s (and in some places, such as in the IPCC, maintain this focus.

This detailed study integrates geography, history and anthropology in unique ways. The data sources were not always plentiful and Watts is exceedingly open about the problems with data, his methods and the potential for biases. For example, in describing the work, he states "what emerges is a small, patchy and perhaps unrepresentative picture; yet to report to large-scale sampling on such sensitive subject matters would, in my opinion, magnify the error factor to a wholly intolerable degree" (p. 35).

The context of the book is time bound – as Watts engages leading thinkers of the moment (Scott and Popkin, in particular), however the debates continue in various manifestations, such as the economic systems wherein the poorest and most vulnerable benefit: "Although the relationships between colonialism and household security in Northern Nigeria were often ambiguous, it would nonetheless be wrongheaded in my opinion to conclude, as Popkin (1979, p. 33) does, based on his Asian experience, that the "expansion of markets is of particular benefit to poorer peasants"; or indeed that "peasants clearly benefit from the growth of law and order … and wider systems of trade, credit and communications… [which] helped keep [them] alive during local famines" (p. 81).

Throughout the book, and likely one of the reasons I enjoyed this book, is a prominent role of, and reflection about, politics. For example: "All of this is not to lessen the burden and the suffering of the famine or to delegitimize Sahelian poverty. But it is now clear that answers to many critical questions that pertain to conditions in the early 1970s are political and many more ultimately unknowable." (p. 374) Watts returns to this conclusion later as well (p. 464-465). There are also political responses, in addition to decisions of politicians: "The whole arena of labor control was characterized by constant struggle and peasant resistance, if not revolt, against explicit coercions by the state, taxes, or the voracious appetites of the buying agents. The evidence suggests that localized opposition, withdrawal, tax evasions, flight, desertion, sabotage, robbery, and religiously inspired revolt were a vital chapter in the history of the Hausa peasantry." (p. 364) While much has changed in the three decades since publication, thinking and acting politically remains one of the conversations that has continued, as limited progress has been made in putting it into practice.


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Logan Cochrane

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