Famine, Hunger and Public Action: Modest Policy

Famine, Hunger and Public Action: Modest Policy Proposals for Ethiopia


(Dr. Teodros Kiros)


The specter of pessimism continues to haunt discussions of famine and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. However, this pessimism is misplaced and missituated. Because famines and hunger everywhere in the world can be overcome, by systematic public action.  The brilliant Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate for Economics in 1998, has devoted his life to the study of famines, and has recently written, " One of the problems that makes the task of the prevention of famines and hunger particularly difficult is the general sense of pessimism and defeatism that characterizes so much of the discussions of poverty and hunger in the modern world. While pictures of misery and starvation arouse sympathy and pity across the world, it is often taken for granted that nothing much can be done to remedy these desperate situations, at least in the short run (Tanco Memorial lecture, August 1990).


These subtle words apply to the recurrence of famine and perpetual hunger in Ethiopia with unprecedented urgency. If you asked any Ethiopian legislator why famines occur with such consistency, he might look at you in surprise, and reply that it is a natural mishap manifest in crop failure, and the sluggishness and cursed existence of the victims. Of course, some of our ardent critical revolutionaries seek to advance what they call structural explanations. The latter explanation is the correct one.


Famine can be immediately curtailed if legislators make sure that peasant laborers, such as the Ethiopian nomads of the south, are not forced by desperation during periods of famine to consume their animals instead of preserving them for the creation of value, by seeing to it they are always helped by an efficient state to possess the necessary purchasing power to buy food where they are available, without eating their potentially value creating animals. It is the duty of the state to feed, clothe and house the victims of famine. Similarly, those fortunate producers who have the food grains that the famished need should be forced by public action not to engage in speculative withdrawals and panic hoarding, thereby contributing to the desperation of the hungry and endemically deprived.


During periods of famine and immediately after, primary producers of food should be encouraged to export grains if they are so able. The state must create the appropriate market for them so that they can slowly begin to get purchasing power and live productive lives again. If they can, they too are entitled to purchase luxury goods like the consumers of the city. They need not necessarily suffer from envy and jealousy, and harbor deep resentments of the city dweller. Envy and jealousy propel many ethnic conflicts. Systematic public action can remove this destructive state of mind. The peasant and the city dweller can work toward a common good.


As in Bengal in 1943, in which 3 million people died, a majority of which were fishermen, transport workers, agricultural laborers, in Ethiopia too, the victims are invariably poor peasants and pastoral nomads. Sen writes, " it is they who eat their animal products directly and also sell animals to buy food grains (thereby making a net gain in calories, on which he is habitually dependent. Similarly, a Bengali fisherman does consume some fish, though for his survival he is dependent on grain calories which he obtains at a favorable calories exchange rate by selling fish-a luxury food for most Bengali" ( Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, p. 951).


The parallels between Ethiopia and Bengal are arresting. Both poor economies are pressured by desperation to make suicidal economic decisions. Both economies behave unproductively, in search of immediate purchasing power in order to exist.

Had there been a functional state, it would have intervened and procured the right to eat without squandering crucial economic sources of value creation.


Matters become worse. Those who manage to survive famines remerge on the streets of major cities as hungry and permanently poor. Consider the following image of a day in Addis, which I witnessed on Bole road in 1995.


I woke up at three o'clock in the afternoon to a flood of light that the tropical sun gave the city of Addis on a beautiful day in late summer. It was early in the afternoon when I was strolling on a familiar avenue through a deafening crowd. On this busy afternoon, thousands of exhausted people were returning from work; a vender was pushing his famished young chicken for hard sale; a prostitute was offering her lanky body for the whole night for a quarter; a shoe shine boy was offering his services for a penny; beggars were chanting, surrounded by an admiring crowd; the street cafes were teeming with idlers sharing a pot of tea among ten people; children were pleading for money by aggressively putting their sickly hands inside wealthy people's big cars, and getting whisked away like flies; a preacher in the corner was telling the passersby that unless they mend their selfish ways, they are going to be consumed by a ferocious famine that might erase the inhabitants from the face of the earth; standing directly opposite from the preacher, a politician is campaigning and promising that he will bring prosperity and peace to every citizen. I smiled sadly, when I heard a small boy, " Sir, you are God, since you were chosen to be the wealthiest, so please give me money, it is God's money after all ".


I continued strolling down the avenue invaded by sadness. I saw a blind man carrying a deaf old woman, which turned out to be his mother. A passerby had just rudely thrown a coin at him, another dry bread, with which he was feeding his mother, until another younger beggar snatched the bread, to unhappily discover that another one eyed beggar had just swiftly managed to take away from the previous unlawful owner. A small dog joined the scene longingly eyeing the bones, managed to snatch from a little boy, and run away with his catch, rejoicing his success.


A few yards away, a boy, small, nicely built, super black with shiny and semi oily skin, nakedly exposing his private parts to whomever had the temptation to see, was annoying the passersby. He was dancing, by running left and right. Some women would secretly glance at him and whisper words to one another. Men would out rightly shout rude words at him, except that he did not care. He had apparently entered a trance.  Young children giggled, jumped up and down, and innocently convinced that that the boy was giving them a show, refusing their mothers desperate efforts to save them from cultural poisoning. The boy continued his act.


The harassed strollers and nervous walkers appeared neither shocked nor amused only annoyed. The large avenue was slowly populated by a variety of expensive cars. Behind their wheels sat brightly dressed and overgrown men. These were the wealthy residents of Addis on their way to lavish weddings and parties at the majestic Hilton.


Far away into the end of the avenue, is the palace, which was built by the Emperor.


The characters above are the victims of endemic deprivation. Some have migrated from the famished countryside. Some have been festering there for years. No one knows where he or she is born. Few care about when and how they die. Systematic public action is challenged to address their condition.




The economically deprived  subjects in Ethiopia, the victims of famines and hunger, are targets of public action- a blend of state action and market activities. In my article, The African Union, WIC July 23,2000,  I introduced two principles of justice, and proposed that legislators must be guided by principles of justice. The first principle sought to ensure that the hungry must be fully fed, clothed and sheltered as a mater of inalienable human right. Only after that condition is satisfied that irresponsible spending at Ethiopian hotels can be given a blind eye.


The members of the media must freely expose and criticize the discrepancy of poverty and wealth. Corruption, lavish spending abroad, endemic poverty at home, uneven purchasing power, the demystification of famines and hunger must be discussed in the public sphere, at parliament, in the classroom. The public must be informed and its conscience must be haunted.


Prostitutes and their parents must be given medical literacy about their violated bodies.  In this regard, Ethiopians can learn from the heroic successes of the poor state of Kerala, where Medical literacy has become a right- and life expectancy has been generously extended to seventy years.


Those idle children I described above can be trained at very low cost to participate in the market to help themselves. Ethiopia can learn from South Korea, Honk Kong, Singapore, economies of value, which have successfully combined economic expansion with social responsibility to the disadvantaged poor, by reducing infant mortality and illiteracy. As Seen put the matter, " It is not legitimate to wonder whether a poor country can "afford" to spend so much on health and education that many poor countries (such as Sri Lanka, China, Costa Rica, the Indian State of Kerala, and others) have done precisely that with much success, but also understand the general fact that the cost of delivering public health care and basic education facilities is enormously cheaper in a poor country than in a rich one (Amartya Sen, Tanco Memorial lecture, p, 5)


Finally and most importantly, legislators must be advised to avoid costly wars that plunder value creating economies. Peace and prosperity for all must be the goal of the hopeful Ethiopia. Famines and hunger can be eliminated by the actions of a morally sensitive market and systematic public action. Diversification and peace must be the engines of change in a new Ethiopia.