By Patricia Lee Sharpe
When I left the U.S. for some elephant and lion watching in Tanzania with my grandson—that was the last week in July—the top news story on BBC and PBS was the drought in East Africa. These channels and others had turned themselves into ardent fund raisers for public and private charities seeking to alleviate the suffering and limit the deaths due to nature’s indifference to human welfare. The tactic: trying to shame non-African individuals and governments into giving much much more.
At the time, I found myself thinking that for every five minutes devoted to scenes of suffering five minutes, equally emotional, should have been devoted to exposing and re-exposing the human agents of human misery. Such thoughts were only partly prompted by Al Shebab’s callous refusal to allow aid workers access to starving refugees and others in territories under their control.
Three weeks later, it seems, these supposedly pious militants still prefer controlling lives to saving lives. But things aren’t much better in Mogadishu, apparently, where profiteers are selling sacks of grain intended for free distribution to the hungry and destitute. This blatant misappropriation could happen only with the collusion of at least some figures in the UN-backed Somali government, such as it is. Hardly the best way to keep the global charity pipeline flowing generously.
We have long known that the infamous Bengal famine during World War II didn’t have to happen. Winston Churchill, no lover of the “jewel in the crown,” refused to release the food stocks that would have saved millions of Indian lives. Studies of previous famines in East Africa and elsewhere have also shown that surplus food is usually available, somewhere, for a price. The real problem is that the poor are poor. Amartya Sen, the Indian economist, won a Nobel Prize for his studies of these dynamics.
Meanwhile, since today’s hungry do lack the money that’s needed to buy life-sustaining food, they starve to death. This is where global charities come in. Better yet, this is what good governments are prepared to deal with, especially in areas where drought occurs more or less frequently. Unfortunately good governance has been in fairly short supply in Africa.