ProfTalk:Bill Moseley on famine, the UN

By Diego Ruiz

Professor Bill Moseley, a member of the Macalester Geography Department, has become a prominent voice in public discussion on the famine currently ravaging the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djbouti). He’s written columns for the Washington Post and Al-Jazeera English, and made appearances on Minnesota Public Radio and Southern California Public Radio. Early this October, he spoke to his most powerful audience yet, as part of a UN panel in New York. Prof. Moseley talks about the experience of speaking to the UN off-the-record, why he believes many “food riots” are more accurately called food demonstrations, and why this famine was not caused by drought or overpopulation. The Mac Weekly: Who was the audience for the UN panel? William Moseley: There were heads of several UN agencies there, plus top staff people who deal with agriculture and food and emergency relief situations. Those of us in the academic community don’t have direct access to those kinds of people very often. Even though we’d like to believe that everyone reads our stuff that’s published in peer-reviewed journals, a lot of policy makers, even if they’re interested in the issue, don’t have time. Based on the conversations that happened after these discussions, there was potential to see some change in thinking. My sense is that many folks came in with one perspective and came out with a slightly different perspective. It was completely off the record. In official UN proceedings, people are extraordinarily diplomatic, and very often you don’t get frank conversations. So the idea here was you could have a very frank and open discussion between UN officials and people outside the UN system who had something to contribute. What was your main message to the audience? I’ve been very skeptical of making links between food security and violence. In 2008, there were “food riots” in a lot of cities in the Global South. I have come to view that somewhat skeptically. I think they’re more appropriately called “food demonstrations.” I think a food riot, you have this sense that it’s spontaneous violence, and it’s like dogs fighting over scraps of meat, it just erupts. I think, in most instances the public is trying to draw the attention of their governments and policymakers to the vulnerability of their urban population. I think that they’re protesting for a reason, which is different than spontaneous violence. I was very skeptical of that particular link, and that’s what I shared with this group. Your paper on the 2007-2008 global food crisis was based on research in West Africa. How applicable is this to the situation in the Horn of Africa? I’m clearly not a specialist on the Horn of Africa. I work mostly in West and Southern Africa. But I do have a long history of studying food security. For me, as someone with expertise on food security I was really troubled by the way the famine was being framed in the popular press. So that’s the perspective I came at it from. I’m a very committed scholar. But I also believe strongly that if you’ve had the luxury of studying these subjects that you have an ethical obligation to contribute to public debate, particularly if you think the public debate on a topic is impoverished, that they’re missing key points. What misconceptions are there in public discussion about the famine? Initially I was concerned that famine was being attributed to the drought. So in that Washington Post piece, I was arguing that famine is not a natural consequence of drought, just as dying from exposure is not a natural consequence of winter and cold weather. I tried to give people a sense of how livelihood systems have been changing in that part of the world due to colonialism and subsequent neoliberal policies, and how I think that made the population more vulnerable, acknowledging of course that the absence of a strong state of Somalia is a huge part of the issue as well. We can’t forget that we also have major problems in Ethiopia and Kenya. You don’t hear about that because we’ve gotten aid in. But the fact that aid was required is due to some of these structural issues. Many news commentators are attributing this famine to overpopulation. And I think that’s hugely, hugely, problematic. So I wrote a piece for Al-Jazeera English. You can compare that drought to the one going on in the southern United States, Texas, Oklahoma, that area. From a population density perspective, Texas, and Oklahoma are much more densely populated than Somalia, even though they’re similar semi-arid environments. If you then also factor in that Americans consume 28 times what your typical Somalian does, the impact on the landscape is much greater than in Somalia. And in Somalia you need people to work to run farms, for social security. Yet, we attribute this famine to overpopulation, and I think that’s grossly inappropriate. You see a lot of that in the media. I did a call-in radio show, and half the calls from the public were in some way related to people in the Horn of Africa having too many kids. Crazy stuff, really disturbing stuff, like people who go into refugee camps should be sterilized, that kind of thing. What’s it been like to play a prominent role in public discussion about the famine? For me it’s by and large been a positive experience. Sometimes I’m troubled by the degree of public misunderstanding. Part of it is that the American public knows so little about Africa that they can’t put these events in context. But it’s been positive. I’ve made a lot of connections with other people in the field. How has the situation changed in the last couple months? Has the international community stepped up to help famine victims? We’ve known this famine was coming since very early in the year, since the beginning of 2011. Even though we knew it was coming we’ve been very slow to react, and the ability to raise funds to react has been significantly lower than for past humanitarian disasters. So, I don’t think we can idly sit on the sideline and let 750,000 people die. The other change that’s happened in the last few weeks is that Kenya invaded Somalia, because some aid workers were killed and you have a conventional Kenyan army that has gone into Somalia to fight Al-Shabab [a group of Islamist militants that controls a broad swath of Somalia]. Some people are suggesting that this could be Kenya’s Vietnam. It’s a really tricky situation, and there’s an added element of insecurity. Why do you think Western nations haven’t contributed much to relief in Somalia? I think it has something to do with the current economic malaise. When I did this call-in show with Southern California Public Radio, a couple callers said there’s no way we can give money to this because we have to pay off our own debt. And I think it’s partly because there’s this misunderstanding about how much of the US budget goes to foreign assistance. It’s less than 1%. So we’re kind of wrapped up in our own domestic issues. And, I can’t really explain this, but there’s this spirit of meanness that is very disturbing to me. I think the country is a little more inward-looking, a little more isolationist than the past. And somehow, we’re having difficulty relating to people beyond our borders. It’s much easier to separate ourselves from them, to discount our common humanity, and to essentially say, it’s OK if they starve. It is really deeply troubling to me.