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South Sudan and Yemen are at the brink of a severe food crisis, with over 400,000 malnourished children in Yemen, the United Nations estimates. Alex de Waal, a professor at the Tufts Fletcher School who spent years in the Horn of Africa, talks to Megan Thompson about his new book, “Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine” and how military conflict causes famine.
In a new book, "Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine," author Alex de Waal reveals the world had almost conquered the threat of famine by the 1980s before recent conflicts caused it to return.
De Waal spent decades working in the Horn of Africa. Today he is a research professor and executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
He spoke recently to PBA NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson.
So first Alex, I want to start by talking about the causes of famine. You argue it's not what people usually think.
ALEX DE WAAL:
Usually when I ask people what is famine, or if you do a Google image search for famine, you get an image of a natural disaster, of a drought induced crop failure particularly in Africa that is causing children to starve. Actually it's never really been like that and it's not like that now. Overwhelmingly the cause of famine is political and military action. We can have economic and climatic causes as secondary factors. But famine, starvation, is basically a political decision made usually in the context of war or a dictatorial government.
I understand that when you first started researching this book, or you came up with the idea to research, to write this book, your research was showing you that we had maybe something to celebrate.
Yes. My initial working title was "The History of Famine" because what we've seen is an absolutely spectacular decline in the numbers of people who've been killed by famine year on year.
Can you talk a bit more about why we achieved this decrease the number of people dying?
Well over the last century the world has become richer. We have much better functioning food markets. People in rural areas around the world are more prosperous, growing better crops. Democracies are better functioning so that governments are much more responsive and accountable to food stresses. Humanitarian agencies much much better at providing water and sanitation and child nutrition and actually go much more deeply into war zones than they used to.
So I started this book in a more celebrated mindset. Unfortunately as I was writing it what we saw was a return of famine in a number of countries. In South Sudan, we have a government which is ready to use starvation as a method of warfare against its opponents and ready when international agencies come in to provide food, to steal that food to feed to feed their own soldiers. In Yemen, which is the biggest famine crime of the day, possibly the biggest famine crime of our generation, the blockade of the entire country enforced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with not much protest from Western powers including the United States, has brought that country into a deep food crisis. We are beginning to see a few steps by the Saudis to allow food shipments in, which are very late, they are welcome, but they are a small drop in the ocean compared to the enormous need of the starving Yemeni people.
How would you counsel the U.S., and other governments, to end this famine, or possible famine, in Yemen?
We should have a peace process. We should have a normalization of economic activity but we must start with lifting that blockade. And I think the what is required in order to move in that direction is public outcry. This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue on which people of all political colors can agree that starvation, mass starvation when it is inflicted in this way is completely unacceptable. It should be regarded as a crime. And ultimately those who who actually inflicted or stand by and allow it to happen should be brought before a court of law. And if that's not possible at least they should be brought before the court of public opinion that says it's utterly unacceptable to behave in this way.
Alex De Waal thank you so much for joining me.
You're very welcome.
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Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
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