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Macalester's William Moseley brings hunger-violence research to U.N.

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Somali children
Somali children receive medical treatment at a Turkish field hospital in August 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia. The tented hospital, opened this week by the Turkish Ministry of Health, is located next to a large camp for Somalis displaced by famine and drought. Some 100,000 Somalis have fled famine conditions in the countryside to Mogadishu in the last three months, according to the UN, setting up makeshift shelters in camps throughout the capital.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Macalester College geography professor William Moseley has conducted research into food insecurity and violence in the famine-stricken Horn of Africa, and he spoke about his work to the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the United Nations on Monday. MPR interviewed him ahead his appearance.

Tom Crann: What has caused this famine?

William Moseley: The short term causes are, a lot of this has to do with political insecurity, particularly with al-Shabab in Somalia preventing humanitarian efforts there. But also global food prices have been quite high in 2011. This has exacerbated the situation. Prices on food markets have been about three times what they normally are, which makes it difficult for people to access food when the crops have failed because of drought. And we've had the worst rain conditions since the 1950s.

Crann: So drought is definitely a factor, but what is the danger, in your view, of making that equation too simple and saying worst rainfall in 50 years equals famine.

Moseley: I think you have to be very careful not to just assume that famine is a natural consequence of some meteorological event. I think a great comparison is in the U.S. In Texas and Oklahoma right now we're experiencing a terrible drought but we don't have a famine there because there are government programs in place to prevent that from happening.

Crann: Is there enough in place in that region in terms of programs, whether it's foreign aid or the government in Ethiopia and Somalia to prevent it from happening?

Moseley: The drought is regional, so it's impacting Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. In Ethiopia and Kenya we're anticipating that by December the situation will more or less be under control. The real problem has been Somalia, where aid organizations can't get in to help. So there's been a huge outflow of refugees into refugee camps in Kenya and in Ethiopia. But also I think public awareness of this crisis has been fairly limited. There hasn't been a lot of media coverage, so fundraising efforts have fallen way behind.

Crann: In your column in the Washington Post, you outlined a need for a different or larger strategy to deal with food insecurity. What would that strategy look like?

Moseley: Once we get beyond this crisis in the short term, we have to think longer term: How do we prevent this from happening again? The U.S. Agency for International Development has been very focused on increasing food productivity and through a new "green revolution" approach, so using improved seeds, insecticides, chemical fertilizers to increase food production. That may make sense in some areas of the world but I'm very skeptical of that working in the Horn of Africa. And that's largely because the poorest of the poor, the people who are hungry, don't have the resources to sustain that strategy. I think added on top of that, that type of approach is highly linked to energy prices, which are forecasted to keep increasing. What I favor is a much more locally focused approach, one that works on enhancing traditional techniques to increase food production.

Somali woman
A newly arrived elderly Somali woman waits with other new arrivals to be registered as refugees in Doolow, south western Somalia. U.N.
ONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Crann: Give us an example or two.

Moseley: People have farmed grains in this area for centuries. One could try to enhance productivity through increasing use of manure to better fertilize their fields. Or to be mixing creatively different crops together that complement one another, so mixing legumes with grains, for instance — the legumes fix nitrogen and increase grain productivity. But one that is not so dependent on fossil fuel inputs from outside of the area.

Crann: When this airs you will have spoken on a U.N. panel on the connection that's often made between food insecurity and violence. What will you tell them?

Moseley: Since 2007-2008, when global food prices spiked, prices went up about 50 percent and for some commodities, like rice, they went up 100 percent. So in that period there were a lot of food riots around the world, especially in developing areas of the world. There's very much a concern on the part of the U.N. about social unrest, which is connected to food scarcity, high food prices. I'm skeptical of the way that's been framed. I'm skeptical of calling this social unrest "food riots." I think it gives an image of this violence spontaneously erupting, a bit like dog fighting over scraps of meat. I prefer to call them food demonstrations, because what the public is really upset about is government policies that have often resulted in these high food prices. I think there are people that want to bring the attention of their government to the fact that there are a lot of vulnerable urban people who are having trouble accessing food.

Crann: Would you say there is a link with food insecurity and violence, and even as the U.S. defines it, global terrorism?

Moseley: For me there's a link between food insecurity and political protest. If we go back to what happened, for instance, in Madison, Wis., with Gov. Walker, we don't describe that as violence, we describe it as political protest. I don't think this is all that different.

"I think you have to be very careful not to just assume that famine is a natural consequence of some meteorological event."

Crann: How do you think that will be received?

Moseley: This is interesting. I think this has been set up as a formal conversation between scholars and policy makers at the U.N. I think they're very interested in hearing our perspectives. It's off the record, so there doesn't have to be a lot of diplomatic posturing. In my particular case, I'm going to present a study that we published in 2010 in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on this social unrest that occurred in West Africa. What we showed is that you had policies through the '80s and '90s which were pushed on these countries by the World Bank for free market reform. What that meant is that they ceased to provide subsidies to their own farmers and they removed import duties on food that was imported. What you see during this period is a decrease in food production and an increased reliance on food imports. That was fine as long as global food prices were cheap, but global food prices have been rising since 2007. They spiked in 2007-2008 and they're spiking again in 2011. So you're exposing your population to volatile global food prices and that was a result of a series of policy decisions.

Crann: Looking at the current situation in the Horn of Africa, as we hear about that and understand it in the U.S., what's missing from it, or what part of that picture aren't we getting?

Moseley: I think there's a lot of misunderstanding in the U.S., we've already discussed one, that this is a result of drought. I think a lot of Americans attribute this problem to overpopulation. I've argued elsewhere that many parts of Africa are not densely populated, including this area. There's about 13 Somalis per square kilometer, which is much lower density that what we're seeing in our own drought-stricken state of Oklahoma. Yet we tend to focus on the population issue, and I don't think that's what's really driving this issue.

Crann: If the strategy to fight these situations needs to be rethought, does our charitable response need to be rethought? Does making donations to groups that provide food aid still work?

Moseley: I do think it's critical in the short term that we step up to the plate and address this situation. You have 13 million people at risk. You have 750,000 Somalis who could potentially die in the next four months. We have to address that situation in the short term. The problem is that once the crisis has passed, we cease to pay attention to it and we often don't think about the long term. I think we need to go from humanitarian response to long term development, increasing local food production so these populations aren't so susceptible to volatility on global food prices.

(Interview transcribed by MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar.)