On famine in East Africa: Dr. Raj Shah, prisoner of discourse

Dr. Raj Shah is the current head of USAID. Alongside Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Reps. Keith Ellison and Tim Walz, Somali-American leader Hashi Shafi, and the American Refugee Committee‘s Daniel Wordsworth, Shah participated in a panel today at the Humphrey School on the ongoing famine in East Africa. As part of his remarks, he announced a new $23 million aid package aimed at saving lives and lessening the impact of the famine.

That’s the headline that you’ll no doubt see in the news tomorrow. But what was really, really interesting about the panel was how all the panelists – with the exception of Rep. Ellison towards the end – were utterly captured within the discourse of technical solutions to development and humanitarian problems. Never once in discussing possible ways to address the root causes of the famine did Dr. Shah mention that there are hugely important political forces at play. He talked about the money flowing into aid for Somalia in particular, and ways to make sure that money goes where it needs to go. He talked about new aid delivery technologies like vouchers and mobile phone-based food payments. He showed slides and talked about a new strain of sweet potato and new forms of hybrid corn (“developed with partners like Dupont”) that can increase food production. He talked about purely technical solutions, complete with impressive numbers, like increasing grain yields per hectare. He talked about making huge improvements in agriculture in East Africa by sharing knowledge and technology from the Western world.

All well and good. But, there was a larger point that was never addressed. Amartya Sen has famously pointed out that famines don’t happen in democracies. Oxfam’s talking point is that hunger isn’t about too many people and too little food; it’s about power, and inequalities in access to education and resources. I wrote on a question card: if famine is about power as much as it’s about food, what is the role of U.S. citizens and institutions like USAID in addressing the political structures at play in East Africa, in order to mitigate this crisis and prevent another one?

My exact question, written by someone else and phrased slightly differently, was the first question asked of the panelists: “The root cause of the famine isn’t the drought – it’s politics. What can we do about these systemic issues?”

Dr. Shah took the first stab at answering it, and his response was incredibly telling. He talked about the problem of Al-Shabaab controlling parts of Somalia, making it very difficult for aid to get through. Here, he treated governance issues as problematic because they were an impediment to the delivery of technical solutions (i.e., food aid). Then he talked about USAID programs that are “working to make sure countries make the right decisions themselves… more than doubling their investments in food and agriculture, streamlining their policies to allow for private markets and bring in foreign companies.” These are arguably political issues, but nothing about governance and power, just government facilitation of liberalization.

And that was his answer. Pelosi, Walz and Wordsworth all mentioned the political situation in Somalia, but again, only as an impediment to the delivery of technical solutions – not as a contributing cause to the famine that needs a solution of its own. Whether or not it’s the proper role of the international community to create that solution is a different question – but we should at the very least be framing the problem more comprehensively!

Only Ellison, when asked the question “Has U.S. policy contributed to the current crisis in any way?”, actually managed to talk substantively about structural issues. The gist of what he said is this: There are advocates for democracy in Somalia, but it’s the anti-democratic strongmen (not his words) who are the ones in positions of power. The democratic forces in Somalia need help, which doesn’t mean U.S. troops on the ground. It means supporting the African troops from Burundi and Uganda who are there but are woefully under-equipped. It means encouraging the international aid community to not only focus on Somalia, but locate itself in Somalia (“Somalia is an industry in Kenya,” he said, “We need to talk about Somalia in Somalia”).

So, I say thanks to Keith Ellison for bringing up the structural and political issues that, even when explicitly prompted, no one else on the panel even seemed to think about, least of all the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Somewhere, James Ferguson is saying, “I told you so.”

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  • topnaman  On August 31, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    Politics is hard. (Apparent) silver bullets, in the form of technocratic fixes, are shiny.

    Are the forum answers informed by woeful ignorance or are they simply restricted by perceived and actual constraints on their own mandates?

    Great post and keeping pointing this out!

  • Brandon Wu  On September 1, 2011 at 12:25 am


    I definitely wouldn’t attribute it to ignorance or stupidity. Dr. Shah seemed like an incredibly impressive person, in fact, and someone perfectly suited to his job. James Ferguson, who I mentioned flippantly at the end, says in the linked book that development institutions like to think that they have the ability to solve all development problems, that nothing is out of their control. So they tend to frame those problems in ways that imply solutions of the specific type that those institutions are able to deliver – which are almost invariably technical rather than political.

    If that makes sense, I think that is exactly what Dr. Shah was doing. So I wouldn’t say he’s ignorant… I’d say he’s very good at talking about his job. I’d say it’s the constraints of the institution itself that are confining him to that specific discourse that I find so lacking.

  • topnaman  On September 4, 2011 at 1:11 am

    Thanks for sharing that quote, it’s fantastic. Let’s hope we can avoid that trap.


  • By On comments « Power and Participation on September 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    […] aforementioned thoughtful comments (and my replies to them) can be found here, in response to my post about USAID Administrator Raj Shah, and here, in response to my skepticism […]

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