Famine in the Horn of Africa

21 March 2003

No praise is too great for the efforts by large numbers of people to ease the episodes of famine, or prolonged hunger, which from time to time afflict the peoples living in the Horn of Africa. Suffering is relieved by these repeated efforts and, in religious terms, this active care for the hungry may be all that matters. Catholics are particularly good at helping in this way, both by their presence on the ground, and by their financial support.

Nevertheless, in worldly terms, there is much to be said for the often-disregarded idea: “Prevention is better than cure”. One of the two major causes of famine is particularly open to prevention. This cause is the relentless and unprecedented population increase in the Horn of Africa. Unfortunately, so far, little has been done about this.

Over the last sixty years or more, right across the Third World, including the Horn of Africa, death rates have “dropped like a stone” to quote the historian, Eric Hobsbawm. Birth rates have gone down much less, and in the Horn of Africa, very little. In consequence, the population has increased rapidly. If death rates fall, and birth rates remain high, and if large scale emigration is impossible, then famine, or war, or disease is certain. Not probable, but certain. In the Horn of Africa these tragedies will continue to happen until an effective attempt to stabilize the population is put in place.

In 1950, the population of four countries in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti) was about 24 million. It is now 75 million. By 2050, bar AIDS, or some other epidemic, being worse than anticipated, it will be over 150 million, and going up fast. (Statistics from US Bureau of the Census.)

The few people interested enough to consider this situation divide into three groups: the Catholics who believe that the population will stabilise if living standards are improved; the feminists who believe the empowerment of women will do the trick; and the family planners who believe that modern methods of family planning are needed. At conferences to discuss this problem the first two tend to be more organized and seem to win the day.

The view of the Third World Group is that all three methods are needed, and needed now, and that it is wrong for Catholics to criticise or obstruct the efforts of family planners when they attempt to provide the poor in the Horn of Africa with the various methods of family limitation used by devoted Catholics in Europe.

Gerry Danaher
(Any correction of fact will be most gratefully received.)