Summarized by Jasmin Patenia


Kenneth Hackett,

“Will the Tragedy Be Repeated?” – African Report, July - Aug. 1984




The horror of the Sahel may be repeated more than once before the governments choose to recognize the problem and act.   Disaster in the Desert: Failures of International Relief in the West Africa Drought, by Hal Sheets and Roger Morris, 1974  (pg. 19)


This statement was made in response to the inadequate relief effort for the drought which plagued the Sahel region of West Africa in the early 1970’s. (background in previous article by Schissel) Will the horror of the Sahel ever be repeated?



Today, an even worse drought plagues 31 sub-Saharan countries. Famine due to crop failures has swept over the region. People are suffering from malnutrition and starvation, and have resorted to begging or eating leaves off of trees. In Mali, an estimated 100,000 children will starve to death this year, and more than 200,000 will suffer damage from chronic malnutrition. (pg. 19)


The drought has become a disaster because it came at a time when African economies are vulnerable, and governments cannot provide sufficient food and cannot afford to purchase food supplies. Other factors add to the horrors of the famine.


Lingering effects of the world recession and limited access to foreign markets diminish the ability of African countries to cover food deficits with commercial imports… Africa is the only continent that has experienced a decline in the per capita production of food. Former food exporters are now food importers. High interest rates and balance of payments deficits also prevent many countries from increasing investments in rural areas… These factors, combined with drought, political instability and war, make it virtually impossible for many African nations to fend off widespread famine. (pg. 19)


Yet international relief efforts are not sufficient enough to match this disaster and the reasons for this are varied and complex. Today the amount of emergency aid to Africa is far less, even though the situation is much worse. Governments, including the United States, seem less concerned with African’s problems even though the general populace is sympathetic. For whatever reasons, Africa is not targeted for extensive food aid or agricultural assistance, even though the continent makes up the largest number of starving nations.


One particular factor that is often overlooked is donors’ dissatisfaction with previous relief efforts to Africa, like the Sahel crisis a decade ago. Many donors are frustrated with the lack of progress there even though billions of dollars have been spent in past aid. Agricultural failures are often cited due to governments in post-independence valuing industrial development over agricultural. This imposes low farm prices on crops to benefit urban shoppers, and further reduces production incentives. Western governments are also to blame for their funding of often expensive and inadequate projects.


The famine is a direct result of the African government’s and international donors’ failure to improve the situation for the poorest majority in African, which derives most of its income from subsistence agriculture. Addition long-range effects are:


-  the drought affected countries with already massive debt, which put a stop to public services and development programs and the neglect of essential infrastructure like roads and ports


-  export prices collapsed and terms of trade for Africa’s developing countries dropped 50% between 1977 and 1981


-  the drought caused brushfires and desertification which destroyed good grazing land and the nomadic lifestyle of thousands


                -  entire social customs were abandoned as more and more people moved to the urban slums


                -  those who survive starvation suffer from hunger and diseases like malaria and hepatitis


-  tyranny, internal disorder, and arbitrary borders have brought an estimated 3 million to Africa as refugees and host countries are already overtaxed with internal problems


What are international donors doing to meet Africa’s needs? Too little assistance is arriving too late. The United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimated that 5.4 million tons of grain imports were needed for Africa’s most affected countries, and pledged 3.3 million tons in the form of aid by April 1984. The actual deliveries amounted to only 1.1 million tons by mid-March, less than half the amount. The United States, which historically has supplied at least half of emergency food needs to Africa in past crisis, is falling short of that today. Aid has fallen as a proportion of donors’ GNP, with the U.S. nearing the bottom of the list of developed countries.


The U.S. response to the drought of the 1980’s is particularly troublesome in that many parallels can be drawn with the flawed response to Sahelian drought a decade ago… The lack of urgency of the U.S. response through 1983 and 1984 suggests that the agencies involved again did not pick up and act on the early warnings of disaster, even though Global Information and Early Warning System warned of a worsening food situation in many African countries in early 1983… hesitation and delay in responding to the Sahelian crisis of the 1970s compounded the tragedy. This scenario is unfolding again. (pg. 21)


The lag time in the delivery of emergency food once it is authorized can be up to four months. This is often the result of appropriations for aid being enmeshed in politics. For example, in March the U.S. House passed a measure to provide sub-Saharan African with $150 million in aid. However, only $90 million was actually delivered because the Senate tied approval of $60 million to Central America. It took two additional months to pry the $60 million loose, and approval did not come until May. Other issues associated with foreign aid include:


-  difficulty in distribution problems due to transport infrastructure. Food aid is often dropped off on the docks but more funds are also required for inland transport


-  private voluntary organizations (PVOs) have the most experience in providing aid to subsistence farmer and poor urban dwellers, where it is most needed, but their numbers are few


-  administrations are asking for $190.5 million in military aid to Africa in 1985 when “security assistance” is unnecessary and do nothing to help the grip of poverty and famine


-  foreign aid allocation from the U.S. is extremely and unevenly distributed among countries and the majority is given to strategically important and “friendly countries”, not taking into account the interrelatedness of all economies in Africa



The solution for Africa’s disaster lies in the following strategies:


- a better balance of humanitarian and developmental aid to reestablish the U.S. as a credible and compassionate partner in development for poor nations


-  the U.S. must devote renewed efforts, more energy and investment to agricultural surplus and self-sufficiency of the rural Africans


-  the U.S. can also assist in the development of roads, ports, educational systems, agricultural research institutions, and other critical infrastructure (and these must also be closely monitored to ensure that creation of infrastructure rather than bureaucracies using the money to their benefit.)


-  improved terms of trade, including in some cases, forgiveness of debt


-  recognizing the need to involve Africans in solving their own long term problems, since external food aid and assistance only meet short term hunger due to famine and drought


It is not too late for Africa but foreign aid is necessary and needs to come more swiftly and in larger amounts. Otherwise, the tragedy of the Sahel will easily be repeated in later years to come.