Modern famine is almost never the result of a lack of food. This may seem strange; for almost all of human history, people have starved when crops fail or wars deplete food supplies. No longer. Today, famines are man-made.
Nor do they happen by accidents of omission. Often political leaders choose to inflict this punishment on a group of people whose lives they consider expendable. To create a famine in the twenty-first century requires an extraordinary amount of organized effort.
It is something that some people do to others to achieve their political goals. As such, it ranks as another type of mass atrocity and a crime against humanity. One such crime against humanity is taking place today in Yemen.
Yemen has been hard hit after more than four years of war. As Alex de Waal tells us in his valuable history of modern famine, Mass Starvation, “acts of commission – political decisions – are needed to turn a disaster into mass starvation.” Indeed, Yemen’s famine is largely a product of economic blockade and other policy decisions made by the Saudi-backed, internationally-recognized government of Yemen led by President Hadi.
Hadi was the successor to Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled Yemen for over thirty years when he was forced out following protests in 2011. Hadi was himself then ousted by Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, in a September 2014 coup.
In the spring of 2015, a coalition of Arab governments led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and supported by the United States, launched a military intervention to reinstate Hadi and expel the Houthis from the capital.
Saleh and the Houthis formed an alliance of convenience that collapsed last year when the Houthis fell out with Saleh and killed him. Today, the coalition is no closer to achieving its goals, but the civilian population of Yemen has been thrown into the abyss.
Between the damage done to the country’s infrastructure from Saudi coalition bombing, the sea and air blockade maintained by the US-backed Saudi coalition, the relocation of the central bank to Aden, the devaluation of Yemen’s currency, and more than two years of failing to pay civil servants their salaries, Yemen’s economy has virtually collapsed.
That has meant deepening poverty for most Yemenis. As many as fifteen million – more than half the population of the entire country – are so food insecure that they are at risk of starvation.
There may be food in the marketplaces in Yemen, but it has become prohibitively expensive for a population impoverished by conflict and inflation.
And the economic war being waged on the civilian population is causing far more deaths from preventable causes than bombing and shelling.
Save the Children estimates that at least eighty-five thousand children have starved to death since 2015.
Children are usually among the most vulnerable to the ravages of famine, especially because malnutrition puts them at greater risk of dying from disease. The sad story of Amal Hussain, a seven-year-old Yemeni girl, is representative of the plight of millions of children in that war. The New York Times first reported on her condition in late October 2018, and the story was accompanied by a haunting photograph of Amal’s frail body wasted by extreme hunger and diarrhea. Within a few days of the report, Amal had died.
Amal’s family had lived like refugees in their own country since their home was destroyed by a Saudi coalition airstrike three years earlier. It was in the camps for the internally displaced that she slowly wasted away. Millions of Yemeni children are just as severely malnourished, and their families are just as poor. Even the children that don’t perish from hunger and disease have had their development stunted and their lives permanently scarred by the experience of living through war and famine.
Just as famine has political causes, it can have a political remedy. Unfortunately, these atrocious famines have not generated the attention or interest worldwide that other mass atrocities receive.
The countries affected by famine are not covered in the news media very often. When there is coverage, it seems to have little or no effect on policymakers and the public. There is a real danger of famine making a comeback in many countries where outside governments are either complicit in causing mass starvation or have no interest in staving off disaster.
After nearly succeeding in eliminating famine entirely, the world seems mostly oblivious to its horrendous return.