From 1984—the year of the last great famine in Ethiopia—until 1988, Stuart Clark was the Mennonite Central Committee’s area secretary for North Eastern Africa. Today, he is senior policy analyst for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, and continues to keep an eye on food insecurity. He spoke to the Record about his experience, and what has changed between 1984 and 2011.
Presbyterian Record: There’s been a lot of attention placed on the famine in East Africa recently, but it seems like what we’re seeing today is the newest chapter in a rather lengthy story. What are some of the things that have led us to this crisis point?
Stuart Clark: I would say there are three things that need to be talked about. One is the interplay between the productivity of the land and the population. That’s kind of an obvious thing. But there has been a rather rapid population growth in Eastern Africa; I think the numbers in Kenya and Uganda are about three per cent per year. So you have more people there. There has also been more frequent droughts; and of course right now we would automatically suggest that’s due to climate change and it may well have been. We’re not really sure. But the increasing frequency of droughts certainly stresses people whose livelihoods are based, maybe not on every year being good, but only having one in seven years that are bad. That frequency has gone up.
And of course that productive capacity has another element: with more droughts and higher population and pressure on the land, the soils can also be quite depleted. The soils in Africa are amongst the oldest in the world. When soil forms it has a lot of minerals in it. Our soils here [in Canada] were formed relatively recently, geologically speaking, so they have a lot of minerals in them. So there’s an inherent fertility in the soil in a place like North America that there isn’t in Africa. If you don’t have chemical fertilizers and you don’t have a farming method that puts nutrients back into the land, then your productive capacity is affected by that as well as drought.
The second issue is politics. In 1984, Ethiopia was embroiled in a civil war. That was definitely playing a role in the development of the famine of 1984, which most Canadians know about. This time, it’s obvious that the complete breakdown of the state within Somalia is playing a huge role in the famine there. So again, at that level, that’s a major political factor like 1984.
Pr: I know many aid groups have been having difficulty getting to the southern areas of Somalia that are controlled by Al – Shabaab [a militant Islamist group that has opposed foreign aid]. Was there that kind of difficulty delivering aid in the 1980s?
SC: There was because you couldn’t deliver food to the north except by providing it through Sudan, through aid organizations which were thinly veiled covers for the rebel organizations. Conflicts based upon political difficulties are playing a role in both cases. And in this case, some organizations are quietly getting food in, but they don’t make any noise about it at all because it’s so insecure.
It is true that a difference between then and now is that a lot of northern agencies are suspect. They’re suspect because of things like Afghanistan, where the only way that you could be involved was to be connected with one of the combatants—the U.S., Canada, whatever. That has undermined the neutrality of humanitarian organizations, which has made it more difficult now than it was in 1984.
The third thing that is contributing—or has changed—is government support structures and government policies. And there I’m speaking specifically about the Ethiopian Productive Safety Net Program. After the 2002 food emergency in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government and many Ethiopians said, y’know, we need to stop being the begging bowl of the world. We need to get our act together, and do something that doesn’t mean every few years we appeal to the international community for emergency assistance. So they established something called the Productive Safety Net Program, which guarantees people who are categorized as food insecure with a certain amount of work and payment for that work in the form of food or cash or a combination of both every year. Those people that would be the first to suffer in the past now have this government program to count upon.
And that program has been going on for five or six years at scale; it’s already a large program. It’s probably the most significant experiment of its type in the world for this sort of safety net to prevent the development of famines or extreme food insecurity. And it really is serving many parts of Ethiopia quite well. It does not cover the whole country, and the programs for the pastoralists have been the hardest to organize.
Pr: Has this famine been putting a lot of strain on that safety net?
SC: No, on the contrary I think the existence of the safety net has greatly reduced the impact of the drought and the food emergency in Ethiopia. It’s really worked. And it’s a good news story which I think is why I’d want to mention it, because that’s a big change. Back in 1984, the Ethiopian government was busy fighting a civil war and they wanted to use food as a weapon to fight against the rebels. So it’s a very different situation. So well done by the Ethiopian government.
Pr: “Food security” is one of those terms that we throw around a lot in discussions about poverty and famine. But I suspect a lot of people don’t fully understand what it means, or what it means to be “food secure” or “food insecure.”
SC: There is a formal definition for food security by the FAO [the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization], and then it comes up for those who talk about a human right to adequate food. But I think in layman’s language, food security is a state whereby individuals or households have a reasonable expectation of having adequate food now and in the future. So food insecurity applies to a state where individuals or households either don’t have enough food now, or within the foreseeable future, they have doubts about their ability to have food. Now that obviously has degrees. We have food insecure people in Canada: people who are on welfare and whose welfare rates simply are not adequate to both buy food and pay rent would be classified as food insecure because they don’t know for sure if they will be able to buy enough food for their family. But that’s a far cry from the food insecurity of pastoralists who have lost all of their herds and are walking out of Somalia to Kenya looking for some food. But in each case it’s this element of not having enough food for now, and/or having an uncertainty about having food in the foreseeable future.
Pr: You’ve written a number of articles recently about shrinking reserves in international food supplies and the rising price of food. What are the main things that affect the cost of food? How do you set an international food price, for example?
SC: The international food price formation has been very much influenced in recent years by the disappearance of regular, predictable surpluses. So that’s meant that international food prices are more volatile. They’re more insecure. Now unfortunately, volatility and insecurity in price is also an investment opportunity. So there’s been a financialization of food whereby investors can buy various kinds of, let’s call them instruments, that are based upon food prices. They can bet that the food price is going to go down, and if it does they make money. They can bet that the food price will go up, and if it does they will make money. In this way investors have become a big factor and as they use these instruments, they make the swings in prices greater and greater.
Pr: So what kind of impact do these more esoteric food prices have on a local market, like a village market in Ethiopia?
SC: In two ways. In the first case, because many African countries are importers which means they have to buy on the international market; as the prices become more uncertain and more volatile, there’s a risk premium associated with the price. Whoever’s going to sell to them will add in an extra price to cover themselves in a case where the prices change too much. So that bumps up the price a little bit. The second thing it has an effect on is if it translates into the local market, and I’ll say something about that in a moment.
But if you’ve got a lot of volatility in the local market, there might be a farmer who’s trying to decide: will I put my six – year – old child in school (which costs money) or will I buy some extra fertilizer this year (which may actually strengthen the whole farm and next year I’ll be able to do both)? If the prices are uncertain, he or she is likely to decide not to invest in agriculture because it’s just unsure. So that retards agricultural development.
And then the question about international prices and local prices. There are many factors that affect the local prices, including international prices. But what happens these days, and I’ve heard anecdotes and actual reports, is that people in the local market in Ethiopia, in deciding what they’re going to offer their teff or corn for sale for, will use their cell phones to find out what the Chicago Board of Trade prices are doing.
Pr: So do prices vary a lot day to day if these prices are swinging?
SC: Well, if the Chicago Board of Trade prices are swinging or going up rapidly, the tendency is for the traders to raise their prices as well. So there’s a more rapid price transmission than there might be if it was the question of a local grain trader at a port importing one day at a certain price, waiting two months for it to get to Ethiopia, then transporting it inland and selling it to people who sell it in the local markets—well that could take quite a long time for that price blip to get to the local market. Now with cell phones it gets there instantly.
Pr: What can Canadians do to help the situation? Obviously donating to PWS&D or CFGB helps, but are there other things we can do or think about doing?
SC: I think it’s important for all of us to think about our diets and for a lot of reasons. Obviously for personal health reasons, but the fact of the matter is that meat production—particularly the type of meat production that most of us are being supplied from—requires tremendous amounts of grain and tremendous amounts of water. And particularly in the case of grain, grain that is used for animal feeding isn’t available for human food. That didn’t used to matter. In fact there used to be such surpluses of grain that the real question was, what can we use it for? So until a few years ago, putting grain into animal feeding systems made a lot of sense, and even turning some of it into biofuels. But now as we start to get into a situation globally where those surpluses have disappeared, and in some cases it’s a question of whether the production is going to be adequate to meet the consumption needs, then we need to start questioning how we use grain. And for us, that’s a question of meat in our diets, biofuels and those sorts of things.