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MORAL PANIC

Drought does not cause famine; bad politics does

It is a harbinger of famine. But it is not the cause

In Summary

• Famines are defined as sustained, extreme shortages of food among discrete populations sufficient to cause high rates of mortality.

• The reaction by Kenyans to Turkana famine is simply a moral panic; and the reporting as news of the famine in Turkana by the media, is akin to watching a movie re-run.

Hunger-victim Lochuryo Lemeri, 79 with his grandson stares death at Kamasuk village in Tiaty, Baringo County on March 15.
DROUGHT: Hunger-victim Lochuryo Lemeri, 79 with his grandson stares death at Kamasuk village in Tiaty, Baringo County on March 15.
Image: JOSEPH KANGOGO

One of the worst famines in history was the Great Irish Famine.

It was caused by a devastating potato disease. The Irish population relied heavily on the potato for sustenance, so the infestation had a catastrophic impact on Ireland and its population. The onset of the disease in 1845 triggered mass starvations that lasted for 8 years until 1853.

The large Catholic population was suppressed by British rule, and left unable to own or lease land, or hold a profession. When the blight disease struck, British ships prevented other nations from delivering food aid. Ireland experienced a mass exodus, with upwards of 2 million people fleeing the country. At its conclusion, 1.5 million Irish were dead.

In recent days, the media has been awash with news of famine and drought in Turkana county. Reports indicate the drought has been caused by a lack of rain for the past 12 months, thus exposing roughly 800,000 people out of a total population of 1,009,229 to the risk of starvation. This translates to 80 per cent of the total population. The main economic activity in the county is pastoralism that is characterised largely by livestock rearing.

Famines are defined as sustained, extreme shortages of food among discrete populations sufficient to cause high rates of mortality. The symptoms of prolonged food deprivation include loss of fat and subcutaneous tissue and weakness which progresses to immobility and in some cases death of the individual. The social consequences associated with famine are disruption form mass migrations of people in search of food, breakdown of social behaviour, abandonment of cooperative efforts and finally a struggle for individual survival.

In response to the famine in Turkana, Kenyans have expressed a righteous indignation due to the inability to fathom, how in this day and age, in one part of the country, citizens could be dying of hunger, while in other parts, agricultural produce is rotting in the fields due to lack of markets and infrastructure. Myopic solutions have been implemented such as the distribution of relief food with flamboyant flag offs, rallying Kenyans to contribute money to procure foodstuff and allocation of billions from national emergency funds to alleviate the hunger.

I submit that the reaction by Kenyans is simply a moral panic; and the reporting as news of the famine in Turkana by the media, is akin to watching a movie re-run. Because this is not news. We know how this movie will end. Because we have watched it over and over again. And it does not have a happily ever after ending.

Moral panic is the feeling of fear or anger spread among many people that some evil threatens the well-being of a society. It is the process of arousing social concern over an issue. Moral panic is often perpetuated by the news media and fuelLed by moral entrepreneurs. These are individuals or formal organiSations that seek to influence a group to adopt or maintain a norm. Moral entrepreneurs are often comprised of those in the upper socio-political strata of the society and they press for the creation or perpetuation of a norm for selfish reasons.

 

We have witnessed the news reports from the media and the questions they pose to those affected by the drought are designed to evoke empathy. Conversely, it is imploring compassion fatigue. It is leaving us with the helplessness that makes us numb and disconnected to those suffering in Turkana. The questions have been around what the people are feeding on, how many days they have gone without food, or the distances they walk to fetch water. These are  wrong questions posed to the wrong people. Resultantly, the advertent thesis being espoused is that drought causes famine. This conclusion is lazy thinking.

Undoubtedly, drought is a harbinger of famine. But it is not the cause. And as Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist famously said, no substantial famine has ever occurred in a liberal democracy. Famines occur in places where people are tyrannised either by politics or private militia. They occur in places where the lead-up years to the famine is characterised by insecurity, by poor infrastructure, by low development in education and health. Cattle-rustling and reinforcement of certain cultural norms in Turkana have crippled various forms of development in Turkana. It has stagnated social and physical infrastructure. According to the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), Turkana has a poverty index of 94% ranking as the poorest county in Kenya; where 17 per cent of its population has improved sanitation and only 18% can read and write, ranking 46th out of 47 counties, respectively; and where one in three children suffer from acute malnutrition.

The right questions we should, therefore, be posing to the elected leaders are, since independence and particularly devolution, what has the political space done, not to address perennial drought, but to address these factors that have contributed to the vulnerability of the Turkana people? We should ask who are these moral entrepreneurs that reinforce a culture that seems to place a higher premium on the price of livestock than that of human beings? Who benefits from the moral panic? What is glaringly missing from the pictures broadcasted by the media is livestock and the youthful generation. This is because they have migrated to other areas in search of water and pasture.

Begs the question, is it inconceivable to slaughter one or two goats that those left behind can live on until the situation improves? And if the community had the wisdom to migrate in order to save their livestock, is it beyond the realm of knowledge and ability of those in authority to arrest the situation before it gets out of hand?

The similarity between the Irish and Turkana famine is stark clear. These populations were both largely dependent on one single economic activity; were at the mercy of moral entrepreneurs who ensured they shackled the populations to rules and norms that suppressed their alternative livelihoods, thus ensuring that a certain norm is sustained. If the true tenets of liberal democracy were practiced in both populations, when one food source is scarce, the citizens would have had the ability to turn to another source.

It is therefore evident that the moral entrepreneurs, the misgovernment and insecurity are the real causes of famine in Turkana; not drought. The question we should ask is cui bono?

Finally, my unsolicited advice is to the Kenyan media; when you discover you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount; not to buy a stronger whip, or to harness several dead horses together to increase the speed. Likewise, we have discovered the re-runs of this movie called Famine in Turkana. Let us therefore dismount reportage of the myopic solutions and ask the uncomfortable questions. Let us stop lazy journalism and interrogate the morality of interventions, because good intentions do not always yield good results.

You can't brace yourself for famine if you've never known hunger - David Sedaris