More than 10 million people are threatened by famine due to the drought which has devastated a vast area comprising the North of Kenya, South Ethiopia, Djibouti, part of Uganda and the whole Somalia. This is one of the biggest humanitarian crises with hundreds of thousands people displaced in refugee camps. This could have been avoided as signs of famine were evident since November. But the response of international donors has been insufficient and not always effective (see The Economist 30 July).
In the past, there have been other episodes of famine, for instance in Ethiopia where about 1 million people died in 1985. But the significance of the famine in the Horn of Africa is to be understood in a much larger context.
In recent times, globalisation has radically changed the role of agriculture in an export oriented activity of basic food products which guaranteed the reproduction of the communities living in the area. Droughts have periodically occurred, but people were not forced to leave their land before the creation of a pure market system, as it happens in Africa today. Crops are turned into commodities and oriented toward export activities based on world prices determined by oligopolistic market structures and not to feed primarily these communities. This has led to the collapse of basic infrastructures that they built during centuries to face the scarcity of food and water.
Providing aid to the refugee camps - with people living in fear and feeling abandoned - is not enough. It would be more effective to intervene for building irrigation and water supply systems, using modern techniques of cultivation ( as Israel did) to fix these communities in the territories where they have been living for centuries and guarantee their social reproduction. In fact, this immense region includes an infinite number of tribes and old communities which are now deprived from their natural habitat and their displacement into refugee camps could mark the end of their existence as communities.
Certainly, the food drama is also the result of an endless war in Somalia, where president Sharif Ahmed does not control the southern part of the country in the hands of radical islamic groups, which prevent any form of international aid and threaten anyone who accepts it. This is why it is vital to stop emigration from these rural areas which could be of help to rebuild the economy of the entire region and hopefully put an end to the oppression of jihadist groups.
In this regard, the effect of globalisation in those territories - by destructing entire communities which struggled over centuries to maintain their economic and social structures - has to be offset by alternative policies of using local resources in a more sustainable way. The combined effect of deeper integration into the world economy and growing desertification (also encouraged by corrupted local groups isolated from the rest of the population) can hamper durably the growth potential of a continent with immense resources which should be used more wisely to the benefit of local populations as well as the rest of the world. This is possible with the creation of a genuine African internal market based on complementarity and mutual solidarity; otherwise, the humanitarian issue will prevent any form of sustainable development and affect adversely the whole continent.
Beyond its immediate consequences, the African tragedy shows that the advent of a market without ethical rules creates destruction and death in fragile areas, despite all efforts to bolster people's resilience to face natural catastrophes, and impedes their economic development to the detriment of all mankind.
Saving the Horn of Africa means in essence saving ourselves.