What’s happening in Somalia is no natural disaster.
Last month I asked a Kenyan farmer what the impact of food speculation was on her community. “Food is getting more and more expensive” she told me. She talked too about how climate change was already hitting her community, how it was getting harder and harder to grow crops.
It is all too easy to look at images of starving babies and believe this to be some kind of natural disaster. It is easy because the alternative is to accept a painful truth – there are people doing this to those Somalians. They are the bankers gambling on the price of food, oil executives turning a blind eye to the impacts of climate change, corporate lobbyists who insist that the IMF and World Bank prize open the markets of African countries. They are people who say things like “capitalism is the only system which works” when they mean that it is the system which currently works for them. They live in cities like London and New York, and they are often perfectly friendly.
It is easier to look at this as a natural disaster but there is nothing natural about it. Sure there is a drought. And yes, this will have reduced productivity. But some countries are capable of dealing with drought. The fact that this drought has led to this famine is because of that human construction: poverty.
And even the drought itself is nothing natural. Sure, you can’t say that any one weather event is a result of climate change. But you can say that its intensity is. You can say that their frequency is. And, as the Financial Times put it:
“Droughts used to occur in the region typically every 10-15 years but have become more regular, affecting the coping mechanisms of communities hardened to life in a fragile, semi-desert environment.”
So we can say this: without the level of carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere, we would have neither the frequency nor the scale of droughts we see today. Communities would have time to recover and re-build resiliance. Climate change is responsible therefore for a significant portion of the suffering. And so therefore is our resource intensive economic system. And so therefore are those who demand that we maintain that system. In particular, when oil executives work to prevent action on climate change we must understand that they are demanding these deaths.
But the drought is only one factor. It has arrived in the middle of a perfect storm for Somalia, with very high global food prices and very weak government.
The factors driving food prices are numerous: a series of climate changed linked weather events around the world, more and more use of agricultural land being used for biofuels and to produce fodder for animals. But crucial is speculation on these rises. Once bankers who destroyed our economy realised they could no longer rely on sub-prime mortgages – on pricing people out of homes – they moved onto something else: gambling on commodity markets – pricing food off people’s tables. Prices have risen rapidly. It was this cost that the Kenyan farmer I spoke with worried about a month ago. It is this cost that is written across the faces of Somalis fleeing starvation. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is driven by the bankers who caused the credit crunch so they can continue to make their millions. Campaigners and NGOs have made it clear to them that their financial deals risked killing thousands. They refused to stop.
But of course it’s more complex than that. Somalian politics has been a basket case for a long time now. Well, it’s more complex than that too. There isn’t really one Somalian politics. What we are really talking about is more like at least 3 countries. Each has its own government or lack thereof, and each its own successes and failures. More specifically, as I understand it, Somaliland and Puntland are both relatively successfully governed. The Southern half of the country – mostly ruled (or, more accurately, perhaps, not ruled) from Mogadishu is the area with the most serious problems. And so it is no surprise that it is there that the famine has hit.
But if we look at the South – which has effectively been without a Government since 1991, then it’s important to understand why this is. The civil war which ripped the country apart came after 10 years of a disastrous IMF structural re-adjustment program which had seen GDP per capita drop by 1.7% per year since its introduction. This programme consisted largely of cuts (thousands of civil servants were sacked), privatisation, and deregulation – the three horsemen of neo-liberal apocylipse to which we are all becoming accustomed. Of course, the war is more complex than this. But we must accept that economic collapse makes violence more likely: that the Western imposition of corporate capitalist policies had an impact.
When we see dying Somalis, it is all too easy to see a natural disaster. But food prices are so high because bankers – many in this country – are gambling with them. Droughts are more frequent because oil executives demand the right to carry on exploring and extracting and to keep our society addicted to burning. The chaos in the South of the country is the result of a culmination of history – a result among other things of British and Italian and Soviet colonialism and of IMF conditionalities designed for Western corporations not Somali people. These corporate market policies, these climate trashers and these bankers and speculators are hitting people in the UK as we feel the bite of austerity. In the West, people are beginning to understand who it is that is responsible for ruining so many of our lives. We should similarly understand that these same people are not just ruining the lives of those of the Horn of Africa. They are killing them in their tens of thousands.