CFP AAA Roundtable: Africa Confronts Famine 2017

What may become the worst drought in one hundred years is drying the Horn of Africa and famine is claiming victims. 2017 is the third consecutive year of failed rains. International humanitarian organizations have been slow in acknowledging the scale of the unfolding disaster, and far from holistic in stating the causes and local responses. This is why Anthropology Matters. One aim of this roundtable is to highlight what anthropology knows that should matter to policy makers and service providers. The larger aim is to find workable policies and practices in the midst of interacting political, economic, ecological, social and moral constraints.

Factors key to this discussion include

  • Recognition of state and local measures already in place to mitigate the effects;
  • The interplay between local mitigation efforts and international humanitarian assistance;
  • Ecological damage as well as ecological causes;
  • The role of conflict vs stability in the states affected;
  • Longer term outcomes for states active in self help drought response vs those that waited for international assistance;
  • Level of implementation of the announced UN and UNDP policy, called by Helen Clark a “new way of working” among relief and development agencies agreed by the 2016 UN World Humanitarian Summit, which stressed that “the priority is saving lives and part of saving lives is building resilience for the future.”

By highlighting community and state actions we can paint the picture of the inhabitants as first responders rather than victims. By November we can begin to see how local action plays out in the longer term.

In February 2017 UN agencies, global press, NGOs, and charities finally began expressing a sense of urgency about unfolding famine in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. UN statements and press reports often placed more blame on conflicts than on the failure of the rains. “They all stem from conflict,” said Secretary-General António Guterres in calling for “strong and urgent” action (22-February).

International statements rarely give a nuanced view of the relationships between conflict and ecological causes. They virtually never call attention to the efforts that the states and local groups themselves may be taking to address their emergencies. Anthropology matters here since those who have done ethnography in these regions are well placed to discuss the complexity of the issues. We can also bring to bear theoretical work on policy, ecology, governance, clan and kinship politics, and humanitarian aid.

In this roundtable, we seek to examine local ecological and human conditions, efforts made by states or communities to address their own problems, and the interplay of local and international efforts. Through a comparison of political units where conflict is rampant and others where relative peace prevails, we also hope to gain greater understanding of the role of stability in permitting local action and shaping the approaches of international care. The latter cases include the de facto state of Somaliland where a stable situation is hidden within reports on Somalia, and Kenya and Ethiopia, added in March to the areas at risk of famine.

When the AAA convenes in November much will have changed, on the ground and in policy. The likely scenario is that more people will have died than in the 2011 famine and the environment will have suffered long term or permanent damage. Even if rains have come, agriculture and pastoralism will remain crippled, large numbers will remain in temporary shelter, children as well as livestock will be suffering the after effects of severe malnutrition. Local civil and state responders will have exhausted their resources, while international efforts will be stretched. The UN and UNDP may be fulfilling their intention to build long-term resilience as well as saving lives. There will be much to report, predict, and discuss. After short statements by the panel members on their geographic and topical areas, the microphone will be open for reports on other areas and further discussion. If you have a specific area on which you would like to make a short comment, you can contact the organizers before the session:

I would also be delighted to have a volunteer as co-organizer/chair.

Please send expressions of interest and comments ASAP and no later than 31 March. Include the geographic area and topical issue(s) you would like to address. I want to have time to rewrite the abstract in light of participants’ interests.

Note that as a Roundtable contributor

  • you do not need to write an abstract,
  • you do need to register by 12 April—10 Aprilwould be better—at the AAA website with AAA dues paid or membership waiver (I know the final final date is 14 April but I am going to need those last days to make final organizational adjustments and to pull my hair out as AAA system falls over in final rush as usual.)
  • you will speak 5-10 minutes, then participate in discussion with audience and panel
  • your participation counts as your major role under the AAA 1 plus 1 rule

I am interested in bringing this unfolding tragedy to the attention of as wide an audience as possible, as well as probing the ways anthropology/-ists can make a difference here, so I invite comment and suggestion from everyone, whether or not you wish to be on the panel.