By Mark Malloch-Brown
The opinions expressed are his own.
Twenty five years ago, in the aftermath of a devastating famine in Ethiopia, remembered for better and worse for Bob Geldof’s Bandaid concerts, I wrote a book called “Famine: A Man-Made Disaster?” The question mark said it all. I ghostwrote the book for a group of African and other leaders who were more tentative than I was in declaring what had happened was largely the fault of African governments. So the great men added a question mark.
Yet while it was more convenient–not least for fundraising and handling a nasty regime in Ethiopia–to blame it on God and the weather, that famine was caused in large part by bad governance. A centralized regime in distant Addis Ababa, interested in its own survival, had little time for the development of far off rural areas where non-Amharic minorities were living. Its military background and Marxist pretensions also meant it had no interest in developing local food markets and viable peasant agriculture.
So the first big change is what has not happened. Most of Ethiopia and for that matter Kenya have escaped the famine not just because they were beyond the strict epicenter of the drought itself but because a long investment in rural food security in Ethiopia and a buoyant market economy in Kenya has enabled both to ride out sharply higher food prices.
It is no coincidence that the famine has taken hold where governance remains weakest in the region: northern Kenya where pastoralists are marginalized and have little voice in the capital, Nairobi; the Ogaden region, a similarly politically marginal area of Ethiopia, is struggling but in Tigre, the centre of the famine 25 years ago, a central government back in Addis led by Tigreans has built robust economic and environmental defenses as it has in much of the country. By contrast next door in Eritrea an unpleasant reclusive leadership may be hiding the extent of its failure to contain the famine.
The best example of why government matters is in Somalia, where there is no central government to speak of and the famine is principally in the area controlled by the ruthless Al-Shabab Islamic militia. By contrast semi-independent, better governed Somaliland and Puntland have weathered the crisis much more effectively. Following the logic that safety from famine follows good leadership and management it may be time for its neighbors and the world to hear Somaliland’s call for international recognition and independence. Its parent is a failed state that might do better broken up.