Democracy vs. Famine?

Democracy vs. Famine?

Yesterday, USAid’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) warned of a famine that could engulf about half of Kenya next May.

The sober report is not surprising given the three years of seriously reduced rainfall, the political turbulence of this period in Kenya, and Kenya’s growing population needs.

What remains surprising is how the local media uses every opportunity to blame the situation on the weather rather than government.

Right now is normally the period when half of Kenya’s food stocks are harvested, including beef and other hoofed stock. As a result of the “drought” just ended there is little to harvest and moreover, a fraction of what had grown is being lost in floods and mud slides.

The report forecasts a 2010 main maize harvest of 1.9 million metric tonnes, three-quarters the average. While that harvest is nearly double that of 2009, the lagging effects of the “drought” will worsen the food situation. The report forecasts a 32% increase in the number of people who will need emergency food aid next year.

Nearly two-thirds of these 3.8 million people the report says are in danger of starvation are not foiled farmers or herders living in drought-stricken areas, but residents of urban slums. They are considered “chronically food insecure” and would be so even if there had been no “drought.”

As I’ve often emphasized before the main problem here isn’t the weather. Despite the innuendos in local reporting of the report, the rains have been more or less normal, albeit it on the light side in Kenya’s north.

The situation could just as easily have been caused by internal political turbulence, a swine flu epidemic, or war with Somalia. Last year, in fact, part of the food emergency was caused when the Minister of Agriculture was caught swindling food aid being off-loaded foreign ships in Mombasa!

This time it was exacerbated by the weather, and climate change means such hits on Kenyan society are likely to occur more and more frequently. In fact the report suggests an additional 750,000 people are in danger of food insecurity because of “freak floods” occurring now in the coast and north east.

Kenya is surrounded by more stable societies in Uganda and Tanzania that suffer the same natural beatings that it does (although this “drought” I must concede hit Kenya particularly hard). But Uganda and Tanzania with all their corruption and social flaws seem to manage better than Kenya.

Why this is so is the stuff for a Ph.D thesis. I think it’s because Kenya is actually more transparent, less corrupt and more democratic than either Uganda and Tanzania.

Aha! I see the Chinaman winking in the corner. Are these noble western morals (democracy, transparency) the right prescriptions for moving developing societies forward in such troubled times?

I want to believe so. It’s up to Kenya to prove it.