Dr. Alex O. Awiti, Director of the East African Institute at the Aga Khan University in Nairobi, Kenya in conversation with Anne Jung, medico international, about the drought in Eastern Africa, political failures and the limited range of humanitarian aid.
“The worst humanitarian crises since the creation of the UN” – that is how the UN called the famine in Eastern Africa. Twenty million people face starvation without an immediate injection of funds in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. How do you see this from a scientist perspective?
Alex O. Awiti: I think this categorization is remarkable. In 2012, we talked about as the worst drought in 60 years, it was considered to be a natural disaster. However, this time it is the inability to deal with a drought, which could have been dealt with if there had been an early focus on it. Instead, it flipped into a humanitarian catastrophe. The response capability was underestimated in terms of what needed to be done.
I think it is a huge indictment on the global humanitarian organizations such as the UN in particular and the other multinational civil society organizations. They have not made sufficient noise to say that we are not dealing with this robustly enough, also on an international level.
How could this failure of politics have happened?
One of the problems is that it is easy to deal with emotional things. It is easy to mobilize international attention and response around something when you see the image of children dying. If you see it on your screen, you will do something. But after that, when it becomes quiet and all the international press has gone home, we stop considering it as a problem.
What we could see after the last famine in 2012, in societies whose livelihood are devastated by this catastrophic event conflict returns! Because livestock is dead, water resources vaporized and people competing for basic natural resources. Droughts damage the capability of a society by destroying its livelihood assets. That is where we failed as a global collective community. We don’t go back to deal with this problem and try to rebuild the lives of those people we saved; and restore the livelihood assets they need to get back on their feet. So the question would be: Why did you save them? For the next drought to kill them? Because if you don’t rebuild that response robust that is autonomous in them when the drought comes, I think you basically save them to die in the next drought. This is insanely unhuman!
Could you explore on some of the main persistent effects of the famine?
The most critical face of human development happens within the first 1000 days. So if you imagine the children born during that specific period and the pregnant and breastfeeding mothers one can say that the drought damages a whole generation. The children are cognitively damaged. The mothers, who have lost a child by the drought, are psychosocially completely damaged because they cannot live with the horror of your baby dying in their arms and there is nothing they can do. Although it is not their fault, they feel that they failed in saving the life of their child. There is this stigma they carry long after the drought. And the cognitively damaged children – they will not be able to benefit from the free primary education and will not be able to lift up to their full potential as human beings. They will then live and raise their families in poverty.
It creates this intergenerational transmission of poverty and the cycle continues for generations. That is to me the most consequential and enduring effect of a drought. Even though the drought might just have last for six month, you have a whole cohort of the children under 2 years, who can be even physically damaged. And if you consider that a society needs human capital to drive its economy and the GDP to grow up, its capability is lost because you have fewer productive human beings. So the problem does not stay on a family level, but becomes one of an entire country. Ethiopia lost about 16% of its GDP because half of its civil servants were stunted. This could be a consequence of past devastating droughts/famine. So these consequences are very, very long term. This is where the reactive response falls short.
The UN and all governments should know all of what you just explored!
What makes the lack of action rather more elusive…
In some cases, it is difficult to blame the international community. Boko Haram controls North Eastern of Nigeria; there it is the war and criminality. We can do little. How to create a society in Somalia or South Sudan that is capable of surviving as a viable democracy? Here, at some point it is the responsibility of local governments elected by their citizens.
We have early response by national governments to even tell the UN when they think they cannot handle it by themselves. But sovereignty at this point can be a barrier for robust and sustained response. Because the government claims they are able to do it. Yet they can’t.
The UN Secretary General declared a natural disaster when already 3 Million people were at risk of starvation. In Great Horn of Africa two years ago through famine early warning systems we knew there will a problem coming up. So the drought itself is not the problem! That it becomes a catastrophic famine is a [nationally] created issue and we should hold governments accountable. Especially when babies die under their responsibility!
After the last famine in 2012 African authors from different countries published the Appeal “Rights instead of Compassion targeting some structural causes for the famine like war, climate change, speculations on food, land grabbing. How does this fit into your line of argumentation?
Some of them could be around resource conflicts. If you have thousands of communities competing for pasture and water resources and the conflict is badly managed, it can create civil war. Also livestock plays a role, as it is an expression of wealth and symbols of ethnic supremacy. And climate change is in all sectors like health, natural resources and agriculture, is a new layer that exacerbates existing weaknesses in formal institutional and social systems. So if your productivity is low because you invested very little new technology in irrigation, improved seeds, which are drought resistant, or invested little in markets and infrastructure to distribute goods and services, climate change makes your problems worse. So building climate change resilience and a capability to respond to it helps a lot to resist in these catastrophic situations.
But it is going to be so much more difficult for African governments. Climate change will increase the cost of doing business and it will raise the penalty level for bad governance. If you are not able to produce enough food that feeds your entire population, it will punish the most vulnerable parts of a given society. So in the areas where you can produce food, you have to increase your productivity levels through better technology, better education and better markets to be able to distribute them into the critical areas. But also there is the restructuring the modern economy which causes problems. Pastoralism relies on the capability of nomadic people moving across the land depending on water and pasture. With climate change and all the land speculations around minerals, oil, infrastructure corridors and biofuel the amount of range available for pasture and movement is reduced. We need to make sure that our economy is responding to this new reality. When people are buying land and privatize what has been common resources, they deny pastoral communities land for grazing.. So under climate change condition of shrinking spaces, where people have less places to go, this creates a very fragile situation which can easily spill over into a conflict. It can start as local one, but turns into a regional one. And before you know it, people have arms and become militia. Then it is too late to deal with it and the state cannot treat it as a local crises but it becomes a regional security threat.
So when we try to think of prevention measures, do you think simple distribution of wealth could be a key solution or what else should be done?
I know this intolerance for aid as I worked with Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University. Well-targeted aid can help to resolve key socio-economic and institutional challenges. Think about the impact of aid to tackle infant mortality, education, access to water and sanitation. Targeted injections of aid of this kind make a huge difference especially when they are matched with community needs. Under these conditions they can be very critical for reducing inequality and poverty. It can enable these societies to transition into something other than pasterns, without necessarily constraining them. You are providing the people with options and choices. When a woman is educated and can control her own fertility, she might make different choices. She can get skills though technical education and go to find a job in the next city. So her children’ and families’ life can take a very different direction. I still believe that with very careful, respectful, administrative development aid we can go a long way. Trade by itself doesn’t solve the problem, if the majority of Africans cannot trade. If citizens are not literate or healthy or well nourished, they cannot participate effectively in shaping national political agendas, much less hold leaders accountable for transparent use of aid. The governments are investing too slowly to deal with these issues.
Would you say aid is aid and trade is trade and we leave it like this?
There should be a linkage! You can sign the best trade deals, but it is not going to work when only a small proportion of the population can enjoy the benefits of the trade deals are made. If you extend the opportunity to a wider segment of the population you create a bigger pool to put in global commons and take advantage of globalization. So the point that I want to make is that you need both of those approaches. And none is better than the other. You need a differential diagnosis approach, which is able to identify the different needs and opportunities. It shouldn’t be like ‘one-size-fits-all’, but you need to find specific areas where well-coordinated aid makes sense. Sometimes you need sustained levels of investment through aid channels. I think one aspect why aid does not work is because of this lack of national and global coordination. Aid organizations often work isolated from each other. And then this short-time, ineffective project approach appears.
But what would be your advice from a science perspective to find a solution?
I think, from the tradition of the scientific method, sound diagnosis of the problem is important. We have to identify and define what the exact problem is by using the knowledge of local people and then set up priorities how to solve it. Of course development is very complex. So many things are related that we will never be able to have sufficient data and resources to deal with all the variables. But never the less we can identify those impacts which have the main catalytic effects – sufficient and robust investment, education, health, child and maternal care as well as right physical infrastructure. Then the next generation has a chance to climb out of poverty. It is that intergenerational continuity that is critical for progress; you build brick by brick. This is one part.
The other part is, I think, about global political governance at the UN and interregional level. It needs to make sure that governments make the right investments and to provide fundamental human rights and civil liberties to their people. I like this idea of countries contributing 1% of the GDP to global aid. It is an aspiration that we set for ourselves. If you are able, through sufficient aid, to build up strong civil societies it will in the same breath help to answer this questions of how to use aid efficiently. We have 60 years of experience in distributing aid – Where have we failed? What can we do better? So differential diagnoses is important, what works where and why. And then you have to build collaborative platforms, you have to raise the civil society capability and build the national capability to respond to those issues on their own.
Do you see a risk that national efforts are undermined by the forced decrease of import taxes due to free trade agreements?
The developing world must mobilize as much resources as they need to drive their own development. Even though it relays on a global given. One of the things that lacks here in Africa is mobilization of internal domestic resources to drive the economy forward. How do we mobilize tax resources and private investments to drive economic and infrastructural development? How do we mobilize social investments to create a path for all kids to survive and thrive? So it’s these contradictions – the global agreements and all unfair trade obligations actually take money from the pockets of the national governments and the food from the mouth of African kids as well as the health care they need. At a certain level it sounds immoral what we do at the multilateral/global level! Because when the problems come at some point they say: “Yeah, we are giving so much aid to Africa – how come we don’t see any change?” You don’t see any change, because the same amounts of money you give you take with the other hand because of these unbalanced technical capacity and trade arrangements.
We will continue to blame our governments for doing so.
We need to blame all governments! Our Governments for making bad deals. Maybe we should learn from Trump. Al least he knows how to make deals.
Interview: Anne Jung, Health Policy Adviser, medico international
Transcription + editorial check: Maria Hartmann, University Marburg
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