Wednesday, February 18, 2004

On Lesotho brings us news of a declaration of a state of emergency in Lesotho as a result of persistent drought in that country.

Two things strike me about this:

1 - The famines that often stalk with droughts are almost invariably avoidable. South Africa is experiencing the same drought as Lesotho but possesses the resources and institutional capacity to deal with it. I mention this because it seems likely that once the inevitable aid mission has been mounted and catastrophe averted, very little will be done to address the underlying causes. Rather than donor states periodically mounting rescues it would make more sense to help build up organisational capacity in the recipient nations themselves. Which brings me to my second point..
2 - Before the process of building up institutional capacity can begin there has to be an admission on the part of recipient nations that changes are needed and a willingness to accept outside assistance. This may seem an obvious point, but it is not always clear that African leaders see such acknowledgment as in their own interests. I recently found the SADC annual report for 2002/2003 in which Zimbabwe's food crisis is blamed on, you guessed it, the ongoing drought. To give another example, this Reuters report suggests that Swaziland's failure to declare a state of emergency as a result of it's drought is largely attributable to King Mswati's fear of close scrutiny of royal expenditure.

Taking these points together it is easy to see a pattern. African states experience a natural calamity which, through administrative incompetence and resource shortages, turns into a human tragedy. Donor states then step in and provide aid until the worst is over, but for various reasons (a lack of real interest, fear of being branded 'colonial' etc) refuse to insist on genuine change. The African leaders themselves are thus spared the full wrath of their people and live to bungle things another day. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that food aid should be denied to countries in need, but I am suggesting that once a countries leaders have proved themselves to be so incompetent as to be unable to avoid mass starvation they give up some of the sovereign rights normally associated with statehood. In such cases donor nations have a right to expect changes and should feel no compunction about acting on that expectation. We are already moving into a world were mere sovereignty is no longer a guarantee of independence when gross human rights violations are involved (think of Kosovo and Sierra Leone). Isn't the sort of incompetence that leads to famine just another type of human rights violation? Is there really a difference between Milosovic and Mugabe or Milosovic and Mswati III. I realise that this is controversial, but I think that it is something that is worth thinking about. As ever, comments would be appreciated.

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