Track Changes: Recognizing and Amplifying the Politics of Famine

In our ongoing series, “Track Changes,” we link to online content that we have found to be problematic in its assumptions, framing, or language and provide a question or thought(s) provoked by each piece. We ask how portrayals and representations need to be not only rephrased, but also historicized, reframed, and rethought.

By Kathy T. Tran, CIHA Blog Intern, UC Irvine (International Studies and Literary Journalism)

A recent New York Times piece entitled “Why 20 Million People are on Brink of Famine in a ‘World of Plenty’” attempts to explain what famine is, how many people are affected by it and why, and what causes are to blame. I argue that this article lacks depth on what the author purports to explain, namely the factors behind the famine crises of the perspective African nations. In the journalist’s rush to cover many topics in limited space, she defaults to inaccurate generalizations and fails to provide appropriate context to understand how and why famine exists on the scale it does today. The author also fails to historicize the famines or delve into how Western humanitarian interventions may in fact be exacerbating the situation rather than alleviating it.

Food insecurity is due to a complicated array of reasons, but in this author’s hurry to cover it all, the piece resorts to simplifications and general statements that fail to offer nuanced contextual information for a reader who does not have prior knowledge of these issues in Africa. For example, the author writes, “All four countries facing the threat of famine are reeling from conflict, and in many instances, the leaders of warring parties are blocking aid workers from delivering relief where it is most needed.” Lumping each of these “warring parties” into one and assuming a similarity across Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen, the differences in political culture in each of these countries is missed. Much like the mafia and other organised crime syndicates in Italy, Russia or Japan share similar ideologies packaged in a unique form and adapted to regional context, so do Jihadist terrorist groups across Africa. For example, al-Shabaab in South Sudan operate very differently from Boko Haram in Nigeria. I suggest that for an improved narrative, this article should highlight the contextualized differences between these groups and in so doing, help to counter a dominant narrative about Africa as a homogenous country in constant conflict and run by warlords.

This story could also be better informed by an academic study linking famine and its relation to political conflicts, which would provide greater insight into to the complexity of famine. It is not just “warring parties” that have caused famine on the continent. For example, an academic study by anthropologist Paul Richards states: “Famine is more often the result of a failure of entitlements than a general lack of food. The poor starve because they have no means of acquiring the food locally available. The answer in such cases is to restore entitlements…”1 Richards suggests “entitlements” to food such as issuing stamp cards, and emergency shipments of supplies to the community. Understanding famine, therefore, should start locally by addressing the community’s needs or lack of rights to accessing their resources, as imposed by the disturbers, outsiders including humanitarian aid groups, and insurgent groups.

Other studies have also demonstrated that famine appears to be increasing in scale today because Western policymakers have done little to “address the underlying issues that cause starvation,” (Wengraf, 2011). While sending aid groups may prove a temporary fix, moving towards more permanent solutions begins with African governments leveraging the right tools and imposing policy changes at an economic level to provide relief for their citizens. In short, when uncovering the causes of famine in Africa, there may be as much responsibility on Western donors as on the “warring parties,” which is the sole focus of the journalist.

In the final section of this news piece, the author introduces a new argument that blames climate change for Africa’s famine crisis. While climate change and the droughts it causes are often a long-term cause of famine and impediments to solving it, the cursory inclusion of climate change at the end reads like an afterthought. This article could have provided more information regarding rainfall levels of this year compared to the last, crop failures and economic fluctuations, and statistics of specific groups of people living in poverty and for how many years. Insights provided by local experts from the region may have also helped to ground the article in its context. Finally, focusing on “natural” environmental challenges again depoliticizes the issue of famine and moves the public’s gaze away from the donor and recipient governments.

In a recent CIHA Blog article, Yaa Ampofo called for an increase in climate change research in East Africa. She highlights that while we must not obscure politics and war conflicts as an influence to famine issues, extreme variability of climate in Sub-Saharan Africa cannot be ignored either. She states, “a commitment to developing robust scientific mechanisms to study and analyze weather patterns at a regional level will be a critical tool to help governments and local communities prepare for, adapt to and mitigate impacts of impending food shortages on the continent.”

As I hope to have demonstrated, the famine situation in West and East Africa is a result of a complicated array of factors, and historical and political context. Reporting on the famine would be strengthened by greater sensitivity to these factors, combating a tendency for oversimplification of the context of disasters and humanitarian crises.


About the Author:

Kathy Tran is in her 4th year at the University of California, Irvine. She studies narrative nonfiction and is particularly interested in how to write, create, and portray global news on digital media. In the future, she hopes to attend law school.


1.     Richards, Paul. “Famine (and War) in Africa: What Do Anthropologists Have to Say?” Anthropology Today 8, no. 6 (1992): 3-5. doi:10.2307/2783264,