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The world’s next crisis: drought and famine in the Horn of Africa

There are warnings that the humanitarian caseload could exceed the Syrian crisis.

The scale of the drought now gripping the Horn of Africa is only beginning to be grasped.

While the BBC and some other media outlets have given it some coverage, this has only really touched the surface of the problem. Most quote a figure of 10 million Ethiopians requiring food aid. This is the number provided by the Ethiopian government, but looks wide of the mark.

The authoritative Famine Early Warning system has been using a figure of 15 million since early December. The organisation described Ethiopia as “the country with the largest acutely food insecure population in the world”. It concludes that: “Already, significant populations in northern Somali region and southern Afar are in Emergency (IPC Phase 4), meaning that they are unable to access adequate food for survival and face an increased risk of malnutrition and mortality.”

This is just one step away from famine, yet these warnings cover only Ethiopia. There is every indication that the situation in neighbouring Eritrea (as well as tiny Djibouti) is just as severe.   

The difference is this: the Ethiopian authorities have had the courage to call for help. The Eritrean government has not.

All that is definitively known about the Eritrean crisis is that the rains have failed. This map shows the drought extending from northern Ethiopia deep into Eritrea’s highlands and western lowlands.

With large parts of Eritrea’s most productive farms receiving less than 20 per cent of the average rainfall, there is little chance of much of a harvest.

Although this is well understood by aid officials and the UN they are silent about what is unfolding. Maps indicating the needs of the populations are blank north of the Ethiopian border.

There is a good reason for this. The Eritrean government has clamped down on all independent sources of information.

In 2005 the Eritrean government began demanding that taxes be paid on aid imported into the country to help the Eritrean people. Aid agencies objected, and when they refused to pay six Italian agencies were asked to leave. They were followed by Irish Concern, ACCORD and the US-based mercy mission. Today, even the UN has its operations severely curtailed.

Until the Eritrean government admits the scale of the crisis there is little that the international community can do. And since no independent media – national or international – are based inside the country, no one is sounding the alarm.

The British government has come closest to describing the situation. In December development minister Nick Hurd revealed in a written answer that: “Official food security and nutrition data for Eritrea for this year has not yet been released, but the late onset of rains, relatively low volume of rainfall, and significant soil moisture deficits are likely to have had a negative impact on both farming and pastoral communities.”

Why is drought leading to famine?

Even though Ethiopia has called for help, some suggest a crisis is unlikely to be avoided.

The veteran French journalist, Rene Lefort, points out that the port of Djibouti, through which most foreign grain must flow, is unlikely to be able to handle the volumes. “It manages usually around 500,000 tons per month. Can it deal with an additional 2 million tons, and with what kinds of delay?”  

The tragedy is that Ethiopia’s natural gateways to the sea, the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, have lain idle since the border war between the two countries (1998 – 2000).  The frontier is closed, disrupting ancient trade routes that have served these communities well.

There is another – unspoken – issue: population. 

Ethiopia’s “biblical” famines of 1973 – 74 and 1984 – 85 left hundreds of thousands dead, probably around 200,000 and 400,000 respectively. The first resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie; the second contributed to the end of the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Since the first of these tragedies, the population of Ethiopia has quadrupled – from around 26 million in 1973 to around 100 million today. Highland farms (tiny patches of land, eroded by decades of intensive agriculture and subdivided down the generations) can barely feed a family in the best of times. Many still use wooden ploughs, pulled by a single donkey or an ox.

Even in normal years some 7 or 8 million Ethiopians require international food aid to survive. This is euphemistically known as the government’s “Productive Safety Net Program”. Every year this programme is underwritten by Ethiopia’s major ally – the United States – at an annual cost of $100m.

This year el-Nino and the drought it has brought has exacerbated the situation. But these droughts are cyclical and it was inevitable that another drought of this magnitude would return to the region. It was only a matter of time.

For Ethiopia, the picture is not entirely negative. The country has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years – in excess of 8 per cent a year for the past decade. The authorities have greater resources to draw upon. And Ethiopia recently signed a border agreement with Kenya that could allow increased freight to be brought in by road.

But no one should underestimate the impact of the drought and the looming threat of famine. There are warnings that the humanitarian caseload could exceed the Syrian crisis. These are desperate times as millions across the Horn of Africa hope for rain and eke out a living until the next harvest arrives.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era