The Faces of Famine

Over and over, the pornography of African suffering simply rewards the oppressors

Newsweek

By Michael Maren

Here we go again. skeletal, starving Africans are back in the news, this time from Sudan. If you are moved--and you'd have to be heartless not to be--operators are standing by to take your check or credit-card number. If you have any doubts that your contribution will really help, the charities will assure you that food will reach these victims quickly and save their lives, at least until the next famine. It's that simple. Defeating hunger means getting food to this emaciated man, to his family, to his children. That requires money, your money. Now you can turn the page or change the channel with the warm feeling that you've done what you can to fight hunger.

I, too, feel like reaching for my checkbook when I see the photographs. But I know better. After spending nearly 20 years in Africa as an aid worker and journalist, I know that fighting hunger is anything but simple. And I've learned that any donation I might make may in fact insure that next year I will open this magazine and see fresh photographs of hunger.

Sudanese are not starving because crops failed or because a flood wiped out roads. And they're not starving because they lack Western technology and farming skills. They're starving because starvation is a weapon in Sudan's 15-year-old civil war. The government in Khartoum has been battling rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan, and the SPLA has been feuding with its own breakaway factions. Both the government and the rebels have choked off villages, stolen cattle and burned and looted crops. As a result, people have been living on relief food supplied by a consortium of U.N. agencies and relief groups known as Operation Lifeline Sudan.

Operation Lifeline Sudan relies on the good will of these groups to deliver its food. Last week the SPLA announced unilaterally that it would allow food into famine areas of Bahr-al-Ghazal province in the south. But what this means is that the SPLA in effect controls the food spigot. People are fed at their, or the government's, whim. And the people know it. Relief food is the flip side of starvation, the carrot and the stick. Both are weapons of war, nothing more than means to an end for men whose only passion is power and control.

It has been a hard-learned lesson in the relief industry that resources accrue to the powerful. While Westerners see bags of food as weapons in a war against hunger, belligerents in Africa see the food as a resource for fighting their own wars. Their motives for allowing relief food into a battle zone are rarely humanitarian. Their only concerns are strategic. Food goes into the bellies of the militias and is sold to purchase weapons and ammunition. When relief food lands in a war, it is the soldiers who are fed first. So the primary beneficiaries of charity are the people who caused the problem to begin with. They are thus energized to continue fighting and marauding and creating new scenes of starvation that will show up in newspapers and magazines and in ads for relief agencies trying to raise more money to send more food into the battle.

It's now an old story in Africa. In the refugee camps that sprouted up in Zaire after the Rwanda genocide, masses of relief food were commandeered by the very same leaders who planned the massacres of some 800,000 people. These leaders ran the refugee camps, controlled food distribution, sold as much as they could, rearmed themselves and began mounting an insurgency.

In Somalia, relief agencies fed the fighters, rented cars and houses from warlords and hired idle militiamen as bodyguards. It fed the fighting. No wonder Somalia's warlords are trying to get the aid groups to come back. For belligerents in these African wars, aid and relief are business. They try to lure relief agencies just as a small-town chamber of commerce might attract corporate investment.

I've spent hundreds of nights with relief workers in Sudan, Somalia and Zaire and watched them wrestle with these dilemmas over the years. After spending their days delivering food and supplies, they often sit and lament how saving one group of children can mean arming other children. Yet how is it possible to stand by when there is even a small chance that food can save the wide-eyed, swollen-bellied children they see every day? Aid workers never crack the conundrum. They go back home to Europe and America and let newer, younger aid workers wrestle with the same problems. Meanwhile, the executives who run these charities reinforce the notion that fighting famine means pouring money and food into the battle zone.

Hunger is political, and fighting it requires moral commitment on a higher level than writing a check or going out and buying the latest CD to raise money for charity.

The problem of commitment starts with our images of hunger. The face of famine in Sudan should not be that of a starving child. It should be the faces of the country's leaders, rebel leader John Garang and President Omar al-Bashir. And it should be the faces of the men in Washington and Tehran who have backed opposite sides in the SPLA's fight against the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum. The faces of famine should not inspire pity, they should inspire anger and indignation at men whose personal and political priorities have led to the starvation deaths of more than a million people in the last 15 years in Sudan alone. And if these are the faces of famine, perhaps our first reaction should not be to reach for a checkbook, but to take to the streets or at least phone Washington.

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