By Mira Sawiris
This article was originally posted in Political Insights.
The current rhetoric surrounding famines in places like Yemen is rather dated, relegating the solution to food aids and donation. Mira Sawiris examines the crisis in Yemen, where the famine may be preventable, not by aid but rather by political intent.
The common sense assumption is that famines in the 21st century are preventable or ‘fixable’ by food aids and donations. But such a view of famine as a remnant of dark ages is rather simplistic. Hardly anyone can dispute the fact that famine is a ‘scar on the conscience of the world’. However, the real question is if a famine is ‘preventable’, then preventable by whom?
The Legacy of Positivism
In line with Jenny Edkins’ argument in Whose Hunger (2000), I would like to problematize the concept of a famine as a natural disaster preventable or treatable by science, technology and ‘good will’. This approach grows out of a long tradition of positivist influence on social sciences, first developed by Auguste Comte. This theory of social sciences claims that social phenomena can be objectively measured and addressed by the same methods used in exact sciences. Though this argument is incredibly reductive and was famously criticised as early as in 1864 (in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground), the legacy of positivism in social sciences has been challenged only relatively recently.
Where traditional understanding of a famine would see it as a phenomenon measurable by time scales, quantity and quality of nutrition and mortality rates, addressing these issues will not prevent famine creation, because it completely ignores the context in which famines occur, the context of modernity: ‘Technical solutions merely reinstate and reproduce one of the precise forms of politics — modern politics — that produce famine in the first place’.
This does not mean that we should disregard technical measures and solutions as
potentially instrumental in addressing food crises, but that we should look beyond, and see how these same methods can be utilised as instruments of modern famines in the first place, depending on what kind of policies are they used to support. In an increasingly interconnected web of globalised economies, politics and social movements, post-modern famines are perhaps easier to produce by human agency than ever before.
People Create Ideologies, Ideologies Create Famines
Sankaran Krishna expresses a similar idea, stressing the fact that, for example, famines in India were produced by a particular political regime, rather than just being the result of negligence: ‘neither the pre- nor post-colonial history of India show any evidence of mass deaths due to famine. They were unique to the colonial era’. These famines occurred in the 19th century and they were modern products of early capitalism.
The binary opposite of capitalism as a political economic ideology is communism. Although as an ideology of an absolute common ownership of means, it was never really implemented in any state, famines associated with this ideology too claimed millions of victims in socialist China and in the Soviet Union.
David Marcus persuasively argues that the mythology of a modern famine as ‘the result of natural disasters, not human misconduct — persists’, despite the fact that ‘some of the worst human rights catastrophes of the twentieth century were famines created or manipulated by governments’through pursuing faminogenic policies for ideological reasons, despite the knowledge that these would cause wide-spread starvation or as a deliberate ‘tool of extermination to annihilate troublesome populations’. From this perspective, a famine is the cheapest method of mass destruction ‘that is available even to the poorest and most underdeveloped state’.
The point then is not in determining whether famines are preventable or not, but in illustrating how the very nature of famines has changed throughout the history; from famines being the result of a natural disaster, through to famines resulting from certain state policies (modern famines) and finally, to famines that are a product of suffocating the logistical economic lifelines that tie the affected states to the rest of the globalised economy (postmodern famines), for whatever reasons. Under these conditions, it is terrifyingly easy, quick, and effective to starve a population out, and theoretically speaking, almost any population with strong ties to the outside world could experience a famine, should it find itself on the periphery of the current geopolitical system. Precisely because of this vulnerability that can be so easily exploited by plethora of political agencies in pursuit of sometimes even ‘noble’ political ends, enforced hunger and the resultant deaths are here to stay, as ‘a mere continuation of policy by other means’.
The roots of the military conflict that currently envelops Yemen is much more than just a civil war. They can be traced back to the events of the Arab Spring, which in 2011 threatened the stability of several autocratic regimes in the Middle East, one of them being the long-standing regime of the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was ousted in 2012, after being in power for 34 years, to be replaced by the former Vice President of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, a candidate openly supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the UN.
A man with an extensive military career that he began at the age of 16, as he allegedly did not even complete his primary education, Saleh wielded a considerable influence among Yemeni military forces. He aligned himself with ‘the Houthis, a social and political movement built around a prominent northern Yemeni family of that name’, which follows the Shia branch of Islam, unlike the current president Hadi, who is a Sunni.
Sectarian fault lines often contribute to conflicts in the Middle East, as these rarely reflect geographical borders in the area, a legacy of colonial times that the region struggles to come to terms with. Such is the case in Yemen as well, with the country being split almost evenly between the larger portion of Yemenis that follow the Sunni form of Islam, and the smaller portion of Yemenis following the Shia branch of Islam. Taking into consideration the fact that the local hegemons and antagonistic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran each follow Sunni Islam and Shia Islam respectively, it becomes clear how important a factor religious identity becomes when skilfully exploited for political ends.
The rebel forces supporting Saleh have overtaken the capital, Sana’a, forcing the relatively new regime to flee. This was the primary motivating factor for military involvement of the Saudi and the UAE forces in 2015, which see behind the rebel movement the influence of Iran. In other words, Yemen is the battle ground for a local Cold War.
Saudi Arabia, along with the coalition forces that includes nine other countries and active support of the US and UK militaries, uses civilian starvation as a weapon in fight against rebel forces in Yemen by blocking Yemeni ports and imposing no-fly zones over airports. ‘A sea blockade on rebel-held areas enforced by the Saudi-coalition supporting the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, stops shipments reaching most ports’.
In addition to banking measures taken by Hadi to prevent Houthis from acquiring financial resources that ‘could leave ordinary Yemenis short of cash and make food shortages worse by depriving traders of the financial cover the bank has offered’.
This is not just the case of the Yemeni population facing famine as an indirect consequence of coalition forces attempting to defeat the rebel forces. These are deliberate strategic, financial, economic, and military measures aiming to starve the population out on purpose; it is a specific form of a scorched earth policy, aiming to destroy anything that might be used by the enemy forces. A famine is one way of achieving this goal, in addition to airstrikes, naval and ground combat.
Not only is the Saudi coalition supported by the US and the UK military intelligence in the conflict, Saudi Arabia also purchases military equipment from the UK, and trained its fighter jet pilots in RAF bases such as the one near York, the village of Leeming.
Despite this direct involvement, which arguably brings the crisis in Yemen too close for comfort, the British public is not only largely ignorant of the role the UK government is playing in Yemen, it is also largely oblivious of the conflict itself. According to the YouGov poll ‘only 49 per cent of the British public knew of Yemen’s ongoing civil war, a figure that was even lower in the 18 to 24 age group, where only 37 per cent were aware of the conflict’.
Seeing the situation in Yemen in this context enables us to see this crisis as deeply intertwined with Western, and more specifically speaking, British interests, rather than just seeing it as a famine occurring in a distant country.
Since the conflict is a result of a deliberate coordinated international political and military involvement in Yemen, where a wide range of different states interfere to achieve questionable national interests, this famine is as an example of the postmodern famine, one that could not be produced outside of the global international political and economic context and one that is threatening to destroy the lives of millions. Excluding Yemeni state forces and the rebel forces, there are at least 14 other state and non-state military actors contributing to the food crisis in Yemen, in addition to other countries that provide weapon sales. This famine is a postmodern creation of international community.
Theoretically speaking there are enough material, financial and technical resources to prevent or address famines to avoid unnecessary deaths from starvation. Famines are not really a question of non-existent resources. Famines exist due to ‘some people not having enough food to eat. It is not a characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.’.
Famines such as these are produced in a web of interlinked interests, economic ties and power relations defined by neoliberalism. As such, regions which find themselves on the periphery of this system are more likely to suffer from famines for as long as the international geopolitical system operates in its current form or for as long as they find themselves on the periphery of it.
Mira Sawiris is an experienced Communications Coordinator and Data Analyst with a demonstrated history of working in research as well as higher education industry. She has a BA in Arabic and Russian Civilisation from University of Leeds, and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Relations at the University of York.