Talking about Famine with Alex de Waal

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Alex de Waal (interviewee)

METTA SPENCER: You’re executive director of The World Peace Foundation. What an impressive-sounding title! Tell us about it.

ALEX DeWAAL: The World Peace Foundation was set up in 1910 by Edwin Ginn, a Boston publisher who had been a Maine farm boy, educated in one of those rural schools. He was famous for innovating in-house publishing, where everything from editing right through to printing and distribution took place within one building. He got the leading thinkers of the day to write introductions to his history, literature, and politics textbooks. He wasn’t as wealthy as his friend Andrew Carnegie, with whom he initially wanted to set up an international school of peace in Boston. Carnegie pulled out, so instead he set up a more modest venture with an immodest title: The World Peace Foundation, which he endowed with his wealth. When he died in 1914, he left us a million dollar endowment, which has grown to about $20 million— enough to keep a small enterprise going.

Ginn and others at the time expected peace to be the resolution of international disputes through arbitration and the establishment of a world organization. He thought that was well within reach, and stipulated that every year the trustees of his bequest should meet and decide whether world peace had been achieved. And when it has, our money would go to child care facilities for the working women of Boston. So the working women of Boston have been waiting for 108 years. (We laugh.)

The World Peace Foundation was the main publisher and distributor of the League of Nations material. For the past seven years we’ve been associated with Tufts University.

SPENCER: So you teach peace studies at Tufts and run the foundation?

DeWAAL: Right. In Ginn’s day, the threats to world peace mostly came from the great powers fighting one another. Nowadays, the pressing threats are things like climate change; the de-spoliation of the public sphere by fake news; the manipulation of media; global hyper-capitalism; and the arms business. These things can be solved only if we’re not fearful of one another.

SPENCER: Exactly! For the past year, I’ve been arguing that these global problems are interdependent—a system— and can only be resolved with a comprehensive program. But I know you’re leaving for England in an hour so let’s get down to business. I’m reading your wonderful book, _Mass Starvation, and it says you learned about famine from working in Africa.

DeWAAL: Yes, in the 1980s I worked in western Sudan—Darfur— a desperately poor place stricken by drought, which caused a famine. I was impressed by the knowledge and resources of the local people: livestock herders with a great capacity to withstand drought. They were accustomed to these adversities. But shortly afterward there was another famine in southern Sudan. The two famines were very different. The one in South Sudan was man-made (there are no woman-made famines). It was made by war and forcible dispossession, by destroying the basis of society. The death rates in that famine were far, far higher. Not just twice as high but in some places eighty or ninety times as high. The previous famine was pretty bad, but this one was in a different league.

I began to realize that in such oppressive circumstances the verb “to starve” is transitive. It’s something that people do to each other. Let me explain the cover to my book. [He holds it up to the camera.]

The first cover that was proposed to me showed pictures of hungry African children in a dry landscape. That’s what you’ll find if you do a Google search. Then if you search for “genocide” or “mass atrocity” you’ll get pictures of death camps or gas chambers and militiamen with machetes. These two images inhabit different parts of our brain. I wanted to argue that they should inhabit the same part of our brain.

In World War II on the eastern front, the Nazis had the “hunger plan.” They planned to reduce the population of the Soviet Union by thirty million people through starvation in order to create space for their army and their settlers. It would have been the biggest starvation crime in history. In fact, they didn’t get to thirty million. They starved somewhere between five and six million. Two-and-a-half million prisoners of war.

In our image of World War II, mass starvation really is not there. But in that war, hunger killed about as many people as died in violence. The reason why it wasn’t criminalized in Nuremberg is that we, the allies, did it too. At the end of World War I the British starved Germany and continued it even after the armistice until the Germans signed the Versailles Treaty. That killed several hundred thousand German children. And in World War II, most notoriously in Bengal, India, the British created famines, not deliberately, but because they feared a Japanese invasion of India. They impounded the fishing boats, controlled the food supply, and mismanaged the economy. Then they did nothing to reduce the famine, which cost several hundred thousand lives.

Then in 1945, before the war in the Pacific ended, the US mined the Japanese harbours in order to seal off Japan. They called it “Operation Starvation.” So it’s not surprising that when it came to Nuremberg, the allied prosecutors didn’t prosecute the German war criminals for starvation. They did not portray famine as a mass atrocity, comparable to genocide, though there is a long history of its being inflicted as a weapon.

Here in the United States, hunger was one of the ways of dispossessing the natives. It was a mechanism of genocide in Australia. In southwest Africa the genocide by the Germans of the Hereros in 1904 was achieved by driving people into the desert, where they starved to death. This is not to say that all famines are like that. There is a continuum between genocide through famines of recklessness and disregard (like the Bengal famine or Mao Tse Tung’s famine in China—the greatest famine of the twentieth century, which killed tens of millions of people through forced collectivization) all the way through neglect and incompetent economics, which is what happened in Darfur in the drought that I studied in the 1980s. So there’s a spectrum.

Instead of a picture of starving children, I wanted to show a plate that could be empty anywhere in the world, and barbed wire, showing that the emptiness of the plate results from inhumanity. I talk of starvation as transitive. This is an act. When I started working on the book about three years ago it looked as though famine could be abolished. We could eradicate it. But tragically, while I was writing it, famine made a comeback in several places—most notoriously in Yemen—so I had to add a chapter.

SPENCER: And I get the impression that you expect its resurgence in a big sense.

DeWAAL: Unfortunately, yes. Looking at it over history, we saw it in colonial conquest, in the forcible incorporation of Third World peoples in India and China into global capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century. We have the famines of the extended World War (in World War I the collectivization of the Soviet Union and in World War II totalitarianism) and the post-colonial famines of Mao and Pol Pot. Then we have vicious but smaller famines in Africa and the Middle East.

But what is really impressive over the last thirty years is how effective the international humanitarian order has been in reducing famines —particularly in reducing their mortality. When I was first working in Sudan you saw famines with outrageous levels of mortality, both due to lack of food and poor sanitation. Today the humanitarian agencies such as UNICEF and World Food Programme, Save the Children, Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, actually have the technology, the professionalism, and the capacity for hugely reducing the number of people dying. So it’s a huge success. We don’t tend to celebrate it, but instead to look at the problems. But something tremendously positive was achieved in a generation. And now we’re seeing this positive trend turn around. Mortality is going up.

SPENCER: For political reasons.

DeWAAL: Always political. Eighteen months ago there were four famines. One was in northern Nigeria. The immediate cause of that was a war between extremist groups. The Nigeria government was just as bad as Boko Haram, the extremist group, in depriving people of food.

SPENCER: I don’t know that story. The Nigerian government tried to starve Boko Haram?

DeWAAL: The Boko Haram insurgency is based in northeast Nigeria. At that time it controlled an area where more than a million people lived. The counter-insurgency included blocking all traffic and all trade going into that area. While Boko Haram was undoubtedly the major culprit, the Nigerian counter-insurgency was making matters worse in that area.

SPENCER: So they weren’t just starving Boko Haram; they were starving the people in the area that Boko Haram controlled. I see. That’s something that needs publicity.

DeWAAL: It’s very little talked about. And then in South Sudan there was, still is, a terrible civil war. Both sides use scorched earth, displacing people, blocking humanitarian aid, closing markets, and creating famine conditions.

In Somalia there was a famine in 2011 where a number of factors came together, including a drought, a spike in the price of food, and war—but the most culpable factor was the US government. The Obama administration used the Patriot Act, which forbids material assistance to any terrorist organization. This included Al Shabaab. Anyone who has done humanitarian relief knows that if you’re providing assistance to the general population, some of it will fall into unintended hands. It can’t be avoided. But humanitarian organizations risked prosecution under the Patriot Act if they were to operate in Somalia in a way that had even the smallest danger of food falling into those hands.

Many senior aid officials in the US government said: “This is crazy. This is not going to do our reputation any good.” But it took eight months for the Departments of Justice and of Trade to find a humanitarian work-around, which they now have. That delay contributed to a famine. Last year’s near-famine in Somalia was a legacy of that. As a result of all the losses of assets seven years previously, people were still desperate.

But the humanitarians adopted a principle that they called a “no regrets program.” They didn’t want that 2011 calamity to happen again. They now turn a blind eye to very small amounts of assistance going to Al Shabaab. It’s worth it if we can save hundreds of thousands of lives. It works, showing that in this complex situation you can avert a famine. Sure, there are some Al Shabaab fighters who are fed as a result, but it didn’t do any good to Al Shabaab, whereas it saved the reputation of the international community.

SPENCER: Is the American help to the Saudis having any effect now on the famine in Yemen?

DeWAAL: Yemen is really the scandal. Yemen will define our generation. Yemen was poor. It depended on external food supplies. It had great water scarcity. And everybody who launched the war in Yemen knew that Yemen would starve. For three and a half years the Saudis and the Emiratis, with the support of the United States, have prosecuted that war. We tend to hear about the really shocking cases—the bombings of school buses, houses, and health facilities and about this attack on the port Al Ghaydah, which is the main port for food. We hear less about the overall dismantling of the entire artisanal fishing industry along the Red Sea. The reason is the fear that the Houthi rebels, who control those fishing boats, will use them for attacks. Also the Emeratis are interested in controlling the fishing themselves.

We see the closing of the central bank, the stopping of all payments to civil servants, and the closing the social welfare system. Journalists reporting from Sana’a describe how the families whose children you see in feeding lines are not the poorest of the poor, but often the children of schoolteachers, or local government officials who rely on a salary. For two years they have had no salary at all. The dismantling of key aspects of the economy—the closing of markets, the closing of industry, has meant deprivation for an entire nation. Because agencies are not able to go everywhere to collect data about malnutrition, we really don’t know enough.

SPENCER: Another thing I learned from your book is that famine is not just a matter of food production, such as crop failure. Sometimes people don’t have the money or they lack other means of obtaining food, even if food is there

DeWAAL: Yes. Of course sometimes you do get famines that are caused by massive failures of food supply and food production but in a lot of them, particularly the more modern famines, it’s remarkable that food is available. The great Indian economist Amartya Sen, who grew up in Calcutta in Bengal during the famine of the 1940s, was struck at the time how there were starving people in the streets, and yet there was food in the markets. It’s simply that the people who were starving had no income. They were unemployed because their fishing boats had been impounded or for other reasons, and the price of food also went spiralling up. People starved though plenty of food was available.

This is quite common. In the great Irish famine a million people starved to death because they had no food—their own small potato crops had failed, and they didn’t receive income from being able to work as labourers— yet Ireland was still exporting, and large landowners were still harvesting, grain and exporting it to the cities of Britain. So yes, we can have famine, even without a shortage of food. Even in Yemen, until very recently there was quite a lot of food in the market because of the smuggling of food. People just didn’t have money to buy it.

SPENCER: You also make another point in the book: that few people in a famine actually starve to death. Most die of disease. Although Project Save the World is addressing the interdependence of six global threats, including famine and pandemics, I didn’t know that epidemics cause so many of the famine deaths.

DeWAAL: Right. Famine is an assault on the whole social structure. People move to seek work or food or charity, so there are big concentrations of people living in camps or squatter settlements, which can be hotbeds of disease. They can be unsanitary places where infectious diseases can run riot and even affect people who are not hungry. Of course, hungry people are also more susceptible to infectious diseases, so we get this vicious spiral of hunger and disease interacting.

SPENCER: I remember being in a sociology class in California in Grade 12. A girl said something that horrified me, but I couldn’t answer her, nor did the teacher. A famine was going on someplace and we were talking about sending relief. The girl said, “No, no. There’s no point in doing that. If you keep those people alive, they are just going to have more babies and next year it is going to be even harder to solve the problem. Let them die now.” I thought, “Jesus!” but I didn’t know how to answer her. It was several years later that I came across Malthus. Your book does a beautiful job of discussing Malthus and his impact even today. Can you tell us where he went wrong?

DeWAAL: Malthus’s core argument was articulated in his first “Essay on the Principle of Population,” which was published in 1798. He believed that food production would go up arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) whereas population would increase geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16) and therefore population size would inevitably reach a crisis. This philosophical treatise was more successful than he expected and he began to do empirical research on it. He actually dropped that argument when he began to investigate famines as they occurred. He was still interested in population and political economy, but he no longer argued that famine would be what he had called a “natural corrective” to population. But I call the idea a “zombie concept.” However often you kill it off, it still comes back to torment the living.

Over the last hundred years world population has gone up by a factor of about five but mortality due to famine has dropped to about five percent. So population is going up but famine mortality is going down. Famines have basically been abolished even from India. Why? Because staple food production is only a small part of the economy—and only a small part of human impact on the environment. We could feed tens of billions of people on a diet of rice, wheat, vegetables, and maybe chickens and other sources of protein. But if we’re all going to be beef-eaters, we’ll need several extra planets to grow our food.

SPENCER: But these vats of meat are coming pretty soon so we won’t have cattle out on the range.

DeWAAL: Let’s hope they are a technological solution to our insatiable craving for beef. But the real problem is not resource scarcity impacting population. All the famines are occurring for political reasons. Inevitably climate change will bring major economic stresses. Part of the world, such as Bangladesh, are stressed by climate change. They may undergo famines if we collectively decide to let the burden of hunger fall there and not here. We are perfectly capable of ensuring that people everywhere have at least enough to eat.

SPENCER: Okay, I think I could answer my high school classmate better now, though I am still surrounded by people who fear that the population will require more food than can actually be produced. And we’re definitely using other resources that cannot be expanded.

But mostly I wonder what to do to prevent the use of famine as a weapon. As peace workers, how are we going to stop people from deliberately starving other people as a way of waging war?

DeWAAL: I’m actually quite encouraged on that score for three reasons. First, when I was researching the section on creating international law to prohibit starvation, the lawyers I spoke to were downbeat. They said it’s still lawful to inflict starvation and there is not much we can do about it. But in the last eighteen months, that conversation has really moved. It’s not so much that the law has changed, but the lawyers working on this began to see other relevant laws change, and we can hitch the laws prohibiting starvation to that moving train. And the law prohibiting starvation is a lot stronger than we thought. I am involved in some efforts to see how we could bring charges of starvation crimes against those responsible for the famine in Yemen or South Sudan.

Second, we have seen progress. There was a UN Security Council resolution a couple of months ago on conflict and food security. It made if very clear that starvation should be considered a war crime.

Third, I made these arguments initially in a despairing way a year ago, thinking that with the administration coming in Washington these sensibilities wouldn’t get much resonance. I was wrong. Across the political spectrum, there is an appetite for saying, “This ought not to be allowed.”

Even in this administration in Washington there are key people—Nikki Haley at the United Nations, people in the National Security Council—who have said that what is being done, even by our allies against the Syrian government like the Saudis and Emiratis, is wrong and we ought to stop it. But law itself is not the answer. The real changes come from public opinion. If acts of starvation are considered so morally reprehensible that they are unthinkable, then the popular outcry will stop it. Thereafter when a new threat arises from economic crisis or climate change, we’ll have a basis to stop it.

SPENCER: I have been in touch with Hilal Elver, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food. If there is a rapporteur on the right to food, then there must be an acknowledgement that there is a right to food. Is that in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or where did this principle get established?

DeWAAL: The right to food has been developed over the years. The US in particular has been reluctant to acknowledge it, and it needs to be given more teeth. Some of the progress on criminalizing starvation will be a means of making that right.

SPENCER: Would you call criminalization of starvation the top priority for people working against famine?

DeWAAL: I would.

SPENCER: Project Save the World is developing a comprehensive agenda for solving the world’s six main global threats. The people working on these issues now intend to include famine in the political campaign against atrocities, and to address famine as a war crime. How would you go about organizing such a campaign?

DeWAAL: I think such a campaign has to be in public opinion. We need to create an environment where the law is catching up with public opinion, rather than the other way around. But there are some key legal things that can be done. I think the recent Security Council Resolution 2417 is an important step forward. The UN Secretary General has to report on that. His report will be key. A proposal by the Swiss to the Assembly of State Parties to the International Criminal Court will be debated in December. It would broaden the crime of starvation within the Rome Statute.

SPENCER: You would then be able to take a case to the ICC charging someone with war crimes on the basis of starvation? Who would be authorized to make such an accusation?

DeWAAL: The prosecutor of the ICC on her own account, or she could do it on a case that is referred by the UN Security Council. Or in Africa, the Constitutive Acts of the African Union has a specific article that condemns what it calls “grave breaches,” which includes peace crimes. And of course one could use universal jurisdiction in such countries as France or Belgium to bring cases against individuals.

But such measures would be chiefly symbolic. They would be pursued in order to get political capital and publicity. The key is really public opinion and holding political leaders to account.

Alex De Waal is a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2018

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2018, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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