Sunday, July 29, 2012

Yemen's multiple proxy wars a recipe for famine

Crikey has a look at the famine in Yemen, exacerbated by high prices for diesel - Yemen’s multiple proxy wars a recipe for a famine.

For decades throughout the 20th century, the idea of famine had two dominant uses in the West.

The first was proof of the Christian ideal that “the poor you will always have with you”, thus re-affirming the eternal need for charity, and the limited usefulness of political struggle — the second was to reaffirm a vaguely or explicitly racialist and Malthusian notion that the dusky-skinned two thirds of the world really couldn’t manage themselves that well, and were doomed to over-breeding and starvation. Before the Second World War, China was the locus for this concern/panic — in various famines until the 1949 revolution, children would be exchanged between families to be eaten, or sold in the marketplace.

After the war, attention switched to India, and then in the 1970s and ’80s, to Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. The story was static, and endlessly repeated — skeletal children, milk powder, guilt, appeals, etc. The global extravaganza of Live Aid in 1985 was probably the acme of this well-meant but bone-headed view of starvation — appropriately enough celebrated by a song in which a phalanx of stars wondered if animist and Muslim peoples even knew it was Christmas time at all.

But by this time another view of famine was beginning to permeate the liberal West, with the 1981 publication of Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines, which deployed an array of theories to argue that famines almost always occurred in regions where there was plenty of food — and that even when there was a will to alleviate the famine, the absence of democratic and open political structures made such alleviation impossible.

Sen’s example was the Bengal Famine of 1943 — something that Commonwealth readers rarely hear of in tales of WW2, because 3 million Indians died due to the incompetence, indecision and outright racism of the British authorities. Sen’s argument made an impact where more radical left-wing accounts of the political nature of famine had been dismissed — but many were still unwilling to concede one of his core points, that one of the great barriers to alleviating famine was the market itself.

Sen’s argument has made it impossible for Western news to report famine in the way it once did, but it’s a close run thing. Fragments of reasons a region might suddenly descend into desperate starvation are aired, but there remains a basic inability to tell a connected story. The default position remains the Pieta, the starving child in arms. More