Web Roundups

Monthly Web Round-Up

On July 20th the food crisis in the Horn of Africa was officially declared a famine. In David Keen’s 1994 book The Benefits of Famine he argues that famines are “naturalised” as “disasters”, and that this naturalisation obscures the processes which cause hunger, the “identifiable forces within the province of rational human control” Susan George wrote of in her 1974 book How the Other Half Dies. David Campbell’s interrogation of “famine iconography” illustrates the naturalisation of the “African famine”.

The current crisis has been caused by a complex interplay of factors including consecutive seasons of drought, entrenched poverty, the lack of government support for pastoralist communities and continual high and low intensity conflict throughout the region. Yet despite the Famine Early Warning Systems Network predicting catastrophic drought as far as back as August 2010, governments have been slow to act. David Dickson argues that better scientific communication is needed in order to translate sophisticated scientific data into political commitment.

Christian Parenti and Kiki Gbeho argue that the famine is also a thoroughly global crisis. The World Bank’s most recent report on food prices notes that prices are now around the point at which they peaked in 2008 when food riots broke out around the world [Monthly Review]. The Financial Times reported concerns that the high price of grains on the global futures market could make it difficult for humanitarian organisations to meet the needs of the 6.4m Kenyans and Somalians expected to be dependent on food aid in the coming months.

There is also a security dimension to the crisis. Large areas of Southern and Central Somalia are controlled by Al-Shabab, an Islamist opposition group with a history of disrupting the distribution of foreign aid. The World Food Programme pulled out of Somalia in 2010 after Al-Shabab alleged that “politically motivated” food aid was hurting Somali farmers and that the food being distributed had made people ill. The taxes that Al-Shabab have levyed on humanitarian organisations working within their sphere of influence have made operational conditions extremely difficult.

There is some evidence that those searching for responses to this complex crisis in such a volatile region are beginning to forge new links between food, climate, and international security agendas. The Huffington Post quoted Rajiv Shah of USAID speaking on the “deep link between food security and national security” in Somalia. The Director of the UN Environment Programme, backed by the US, urged the UN to make climate change a strategic priority stressing that food insecurity and resource conflict were increasingly serious problems.

These arguments for policy adjustment recall anthropological debates on the “securitization” of humanitarian issues and raise questions about how risk and security are defined, whose security is perceived to be at stake, and the possible political consequences of reframing crises as problems of “security”. The invocation of “security” implies that a crisis has exceeded the normal “rules of the game” and therefore requires an extraordinary response: as John Gledhill has argued “securitisation generates sovereignty” [Anthropology in the Age of Securitization]. Andrew Lakoff examines how tropes of securitization such as “preparedness” widen the scope of a crisis and multiple the actors who are empowered to intervene [Preparing for the Next Emergency]. Stefan Elbe asks if health professionals should ever strategically “play the security card” given the undoubted galvanising power of the security discourse to generate the resources and political will needed to address humanitarian crises. He distinguishes between the international, national and individual security agendas, arguing that discourses of individual security may be invoked to focus attention on already endemic diseases rather than future pandemics.

As aid agencies struggle to access populations in Kenya and Somalia many were concerned that the revelation in July that the CIA organised a fake hepatitis-B vaccination campaign to obtain DNA samples from Osama Bin Laden’s family could jeopardise public confidence in vaccine programmes [NYT] [Guardian]. Rates of polio vaccination in Pakistan have fluctuated in recent years as a result of rumours that the vaccine was a form of covert biological warfare aimed at sterilising Muslims [Irin]. Public confidence in vaccines is a major public health concern [NPR] [Humanosphere] and will be increasingly important in the coming “Decade of Vaccines” [The Lancet].

Anthropologists have studied the power of local or international rumours about the safety of vaccines to disrupt costly immunisation programmes. These rumours such as those detailed by UNICEF in their East African case study are situated, as Luise White puts it, “in distinctive terrain .. they have to be constituted by what is credible. The imaginary and the fantastic must be constructed out of what is socially conceivable”[Telling More: Lies, Secrets and History]. Ayodele Jegede’s article on the boycott of the polio vaccine in Northern Nigeria shows how Nigerians drew on the experience of a recent unethical local drugs trial as well as the advice of politicians when making the decision not to vaccinate their children [PLoS Med]

Elsewhere in July NPR excerpted Paul Farmer’s new book “Haiti after the Earthquake“. The New York Times reported that scientists were bypassing peer review and crowdsourcing research funding [NYT], and as the NASA space shuttle made it’s final flight Scientific American reported on the introduction of a “new business model” into the economies of space exploration [Scientific American].