The distorted manifestation of an ‘instant’ man-made famine: how the current crisis in South Sudan was no surprise

‘A Perfect Storm.’

This is just one of the phrases used by media outlets to describe how the crisis in South Sudan was formed, a place where millions are now starving due to internal conflict. However, there was no ‘storm’ which led to the crisis; it was caused instead by decades of violence and government corruption. Famine in this instance is being used as a weapon of war, hence the label ‘man-made’. This elitism and corruption prevent aid from reaching those who need it most. A famine is usually considered rare and extreme, occurring when large populations lack adequate access to food, resulting in widespread malnutrition and death. The most predominant cause of death is due to weak immune systems, leaving populations highly vulnerable to infectious diseases. When a famine is officially declared by the United Nations, it means that people are already dying. What I’d like to discuss, then, is how the case of famine in South Sudan has been manifested as ‘instant’ by the media, when in fact, the country was gearing towards it. Looking beyond the representations of the South Sudan famine, I would like to offer an insight into how this country has suffered a long history of political instability and conflict leading to famine; today’s crisis being no different. Based on past incidents, this famine should have been predicted.

The deceptive message presented to us by the media is that the famine in South Sudan was unexpected, a crisis that the international community was unprepared for. The recurring narrative is that without a significant infusion of money, children would be especially stunned by severe malnutrition and would not be able to go to school; gains in economic development would be reversed, and people’s livelihoods would be completely lost. The language used within international newspapers emphasises the spontaneity of the Sudanese famine, misleading readers into believing that the crisis was unpreventable. For example, The Huffington Post says there was a ‘perfect storm’ and ‘emergency measures are crucial’ for communities to cope better with ‘shocks in the future’. The Financial Times also stated that as ‘famines are supposed to be a thing of the past’, it ‘came as a shock’. Other publications have mentioned how the famine was ‘sparked’. The hidden agenda is to make the public believe that this was a surprise for the international community, in which they need a sudden ‘injection of funds’ to resolve the famine- a staggering amount of $4.4 billion by July 2017(according to the UN). Correspondingly, aid agencies must use collective and coordinated global efforts to meet the target. It is only at the last minute we have been told to act. This makes it near impossible to implement sustainable measures for the newest country in the world, save upwards of five million from malnutrition, and prevent the famine from getting worse.

A fundamental flaw in the UN system is that famine will only be declared by Officials when at least two people for every 10,000 die each day. This means that at least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages and a limited ability to cope. There is a vital problem with declaring famine based on these UN protocols: only when people have died does the world step up. Only when a humanitarian crisis becomes a famine do people begin to associate giving aid with the prevention of death. But the truth is that death on an immense scale has already occurred. Not all aid agencies have the capacity to respond in a way that averts famine- especially in areas where famine is man-made due to conflict and instability. This includes localised famines in Africa and the Middle East, which are rarely reported. Only when famines become widespread and problematic on a discernibly large scale does it becomes the responsibility of the international community. When countries are declared a state of emergency, the developed nations feel obliged to help the poor, save the starving millions and maintain their image as heroic and dependable nations.

Even Bob Geldof gave a speech on behalf of ITV News, discussing how the British are always the first to help countries facing humanitarian crises and giving thanks to the UK government, ‘others (meaning other countries) get off their arses and do something’. This is somewhat a rendition of national pride, where the crisis of famine is used to reinforce how the British are leaders in humanitarian aid and development, while excluding other countries from praise or appreciation. Could we be any further from reaching an international community? There is an excessive amount of commotion about how we must have international cooperation and build bilateral relationships to promote world peace. This cannot be achieved if we are influenced by certain figures in the media which emphasise that our nation is superior. Set against the backdrop of the international political context, Bob Geldof appears as merely a peripheral figure. What I am referring to, are the hegemonic structures within the humanitarian intervention. The wider vision of the UN, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. If they wanted to, they could have prevented the famine before people started dying. Why? Because they have a substantial amount of power over the entire world.

The man-made famine in South Sudan is surely a crisis, but one that was fast approaching.

Famine in South Sudan is not rare. Poor governance and instability quickly turn drought into a humanitarian crisis. The political and economic situation amongst the population of South Sudan has been disastrous even before the country gained independence in 2011. The Christian population of South Sudan comprises mostly black Africans, while Northern Sudan is predominantly Arab and Muslim. The political, religious, economic and social asymmetries in favour of the north, as well as racial tensions, have widened this divide between the two countries.

In 1998, a catastrophic famine was caused by drought and lack of expedient action, combined with a fragile infrastructure and civil conflict. The government slowed down aid and made the famine more severe. What we must remember, however, is that not all governments commit to a declaration of duty against the most vulnerable people in their countries. The worst affected area was Bahr el Ghazal in south-western Sudan. The famine agents who were responsible for these systematic human rights abuses included the government, which involved the Muraheleen (militia of the Baggara). They displaced, killed and captured civilians known as Dinka people, stripping them of assets which they relied on for survival, such as land used for agricultural practices. Cattle wealth was given to the Baggara, grains were looted, crops and homes were burned, and women and children were enslaved. Heavy responsibility was also given to Commander Kerubino Kuanyin Bol, leader of a rebel army who was backed by the government to carry out raids on Dinka assets. The famine was further extended by The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), who pilfered aid and maintained slavery.

South Sudan was not given a chance to fully recover from the famine, due to internal and border insecurity, erratic rains and a huge influx of civilians from the North. In 2001, 48% of the population were malnourished. The major armed conflicts such as the 2003 war in Darfur, where rebel groups fought the government of Sudan, led to further hostility within the region. The government responded by carrying out ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and also to the indictment of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law. Conflict continued as rebel groups rejected the peace accord in 2006. By the time South Sudan became independent in 2011, 36% of the population were already facing food insecurity. The ongoing political instability was intensified when the government, who originally led the way for independence, became divided, leading to the civil war in 2013-2015, which saw mass atrocities such as massacres and the displacement of 2.2 million people. South Sudan is now the third most fled country, behind Syria and Afghanistan. Although peace agreements have been signed by warring parties, intense conflict continued, and the latest outcome from all this fighting is the famine.

South Sudan was already facing widespread hunger due to the ongoing conflict, exacerbated by the three-year civil war. Due to plunging oil prices, inflation reached 836% in October 2016 which made it the highest in the world at the time. This hyperinflation led to surging food costs and consumer prices boosted by 109.9% in December 2016. Famine was officially about to happen. With an incredibly weak currency and a nation already suffering from food insecurity, the situation could have been foreseen.

What I do understand, and what makes the provision of aid so difficult in South Sudan, is that the government is using famine as a war crime. They have cut off supply routes and impeded access for aid agencies, and the number of aid workers being murdered by militia and armed groups is growing. Although there is no offence for ‘creating a famine’ under international law, civilians do have a right to protection in a conflicted environment. The law states that ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population’ may not be attacked. They have a protected status as civilians and using starvation is classified as a weapon of war. In the case of South Sudan, the government have willingly contributed to the increased food insecurity of populations, resulting from socio-political processes.

I remain unsure about the future situation in South Sudan; there is slow progress in aid reaching the country due to the aid workers being prohibited. However, this is the case in many African countries because of the extent of corruption internal to the political sphere. Rather than proposing an outcome, I’d like people to think about the wider picture in South Sudan, rather than believing that this crisis was sudden, which means that we should also rapidly donate $4.4 billion as a collective to solve the famine. It could have been predicted- or even better, avoided.

Money caused the conflict, leading to the famine. Funds will not create peace or feed the hundreds of millions starving in South Sudan in its current condition. In fact, much of the aid goes to the corrupt leaders in power. No immediate measure outweighs the ideal solution: to promote diplomatic resolution which thus creates peace, the most difficult challenge yet.


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Priya Surendra 2 Articles
Master’s graduate in Geopolitics, Territory and Security from Kings College London. Relationship builder, articulate in speech with a flair for research and writing. Well-developed analytical skills and tackles issues originally.

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