Famine in Africa: Causes, Responses, and Prevention

By Joachim von Braun, Tesfaye Teklu, and Patrick Webb

Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1998
International Food Policy Research Institute
Washington D.C. Hardback, 1999. ISBN: 0801861217.

Reviewed by Tom Marchione

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The economics of famine does not lend itself to scientific treatment. Research such as this book summarizes must be done under the most difficult, dangerous and unpredictable of institutional and environmental hardships. Research contrasts with the horror and moral judgment most observers experience when famine strikes. Famines and poisonous snakes are things one would rather not meet in the wild, and in chance encounters the compulsion is either to avoid or eliminate them as soon as possible. However, for those of us faced with the task of dealing with their anatomy and effects, there is no substitute for good science. Famine in Africa is good science.

The soundness of the research is assured in that the three authors early in their careers were the Institute for Food Policy Research. Joachim von Braun is now at the University of Bonn, Germany where he heads the Economics Department in the Center for Development Research, and Patrick Webb is now on the faculty of Tufts University’s School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston, Massachusetts.

The book synthesizes much of the best micro-economic research done on famine in Africa over the past two decades, particularly in Ethiopia and Sudan, supplemented with key work in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The research is organized around a conceptual framework consisting of a matrix of three determinants of famine: 1) policy, institutional and organizational failures, 2) resource poverty, climate shocks, and 3) population pressures. Each of these are interrelated and connected to a country’s strategic policies, organization and governance, program interventions, and household income, nutrition, mortality, services, and migration during a famine event.

The three chapters devoted to the three determinants advances our understanding through new empirical studies, but the overall analysis is limited by the general lack of understanding of the complexity of the interplay of natural and human forces behind the famines analyzed. Perhaps the most original contribution in these chapters is the urban unemployment problems created by rural famines.

The following two chapters are more assessable with the empirical approach taken to market success, market failure and household food insecurity. The patient and imaginative reader can begin to see the plight and struggle of the families undergoing famine. Some the best information on household food insecurity and its relationship to child nutritional status under the coping dynamics of famine stresses can be found in this book.

The final chapter applies the analysis together with reviews of policies and relief, employment (particularly labor intensive employment programs) and agricultural programs that have been tried in African famines. The strengths and weaknesses of empirical studies of each approach to famine are carefully summarized. The chapter concludes with six hard won conclusions about the dynamics and lack of political, financial and research commitment to deal with famine in Africa by the international community.

As I began writing this review, I was reminded of two experiences I had related to famine in Ethiopia. Although I believe this book is a required part of the library of all workers on the relief situations so characteristic of the post-Cold War era, neither of my experiences is illuminated by it.

The first was on a rapid assessment of CARE food assistance programs in 1992. The long war with Eritrea had just ended. Although it was very clear that authorities in Addis Ababa maintained some degree of overall control, the government had no local capacity or will to implement the policies that would effect local relief or rehabilitation efforts one way or the other. International NGOs, such as CARE, had considerable latitude and in effect were a shadow government in some of the poorest sections of the country. It is not clear that the authors give enough attention to the role or ingenuity of local or international NGOs.

The second experience was on a brief sabbatical at Brown University’s World Hunger Program in 1995, managing research on the Ethiopian conflict, specifically the work of an Ethiopian and an Eritrean graduate student. It became increasingly clear to me that the perspectives on the history and events surrounding the conflict and famines in Ethiopia were very different between persons from different parts of the country. The book touches ever so lightly on the complex ethnic, political and human rights questions behind state failures in the famines in Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

While the authors prescribe better institutional and policy contexts for improving the responses and prevention of famine, their methodology leads them to assume too much of governments and economic institutions in these most costly famines. The book should not be faulted for this since it is written from the perspective of western economics. However, it does clearly illustrate that famines take us far beyond the horizons of empirical economic analysis.

The reviewer, Tom Marchione, is an anthropologist employed at the United States Agency for International Development, where he advises on food security and nutrition. He is a Hunger Notes contributing editor. His research focuses on the relationship of nutrition to national development and human rights (This review in no way represents the views or policies of the United States Government).

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