People dying from hunger like those in Niger should not have to wait for the TV crews to arrive
Economist, 18th August 2005
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, known as FEWS Net, monitors the threat of mass hunger in some of the poorest parts of the world. It is hardly surprising, then, that FEWS Net has published an inquiry into the world’s failure to respond to food shortages in Niger and the rest of the Sahel. The report is subtitled simply: “What went wrong?”
That is the right question to ask. But what is surprising, and disconcerting, is that the report was written in 1997, not 2005.
This illustrates two things: Niger’s present nightmare is a recurring one; and whatever went wrong in 1997 was not put right by 2005. In both cases, signs of distress were recognised early, but the response was dilatory. In both cases, relief agencies and donors failed to settle on an assessment of need. The decisive difference is that, in 1997, the international media were largely absent. In 2005, by contrast, the drought of attention eventually turned into a deluge. The Niger appeal received more money in the ten days after the media arrived on the scene than it had in the previous ten months. As a result, the worst may now be over there.
Unfortunately, the media will always arrive late, if at all. Famine is a complex process, not a single, abrupt event. Food prices rise, families sell their assets, some migrate in search of work or wild foods. As hunger sets in, the body’s own assets decline. It is only after stomach muscles have wasted that the distended bellies so sadly familiar from television pictures appear. These images have become necessary to the genre. The falling livestock prices that long preceded them are not as telegenic.
Hunger also prevails far beyond the media spotlight. According to FEWS Net, many more people are affected by continuing food crises in Ethiopia, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In each of those countries, there are also many hungry and dying babies. But the bright light the media sheds on its chosen subject throws everything else into shadow.
The bandwagon dilemma
The media attention now devoted to Niger and the political weight it carries pose a tactical dilemma for the aid agencies. Do they slow the bandwagon down to try to redirect it to other destinations it might otherwise bypass? Or do they take advantage of the media spotlight to wring as much money out of donor governments as they can?
To downplay the crisis carries a big risk: there is a high political price to pay if one is seen as not doing enough in the face of such hardship. But there are equal and opposite dangers. Inevitably, the media sometimes overstate things. Loose talk of famine and millions of starvation deaths can do more harm than good. Such talk can tempt private traders to hoard grain, either out of fear that they, too, will succumb to famine or out of greed, anticipating the higher prices an international relief effort will pay. Media reports may also have prompted Niger’s neighbours, from which it normally buys food, to restrict exports of grain to the country.
Famine is preventable because it is predictable. The job of foreseeing it falls to the early warning systems, such as FEWS Net, which is funded by the American government, and its UN counterpart. The job of preventing it falls first and foremost to the World Food Programme, another UN agency, plus a long train of private agencies. The job of funding their efforts falls to no one in particular. But then, when the cameras arrive, it falls to everyone at once.
Last year, Hilary Benn, Britain’s minister for international development, made two proposals that now look more timely than ever. The most obvious one is to establish a standing fund on which relief agencies can draw. Such a fund should not free these agencies from accountability to their donors. But it should spare them from the need to court their paymasters in a panicked response to every emergency.
Early interventions are not only cheaper than belated ones. They can also avoid some of the dangers of food aid. Cheap food dumped on local markets for long periods might save some from starvation, but it can also hurt farmers, perversely eroding a country’s agricultural capacity in the name of food security. In Ethiopia, which in 2003 received food aid equivalent to 15% of its annual cereal production, agricultural yields have stagnated. An early intervention that arrives before people’s livelihoods are destroyed and before they are too weak to work can offer cash or vouchers with which to buy food on the market, rather than emergency rations to keep them alive.
Mr Benn’s second proposal is that one agency, such as the European Commission’s humanitarian agency ECHO, be designated a “financier of last resort”, a kind of swing provider of aid, whose job is to cater to the crises every other donor neglects. Both proposals have merit. The world’s system for fighting the direst cases of mass hunger should not rest on a global sympathy contest umpired by television cameras.