Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Industry in Africa

In This Review

Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Industry in Africa

by Alex De Waal
Indiana University Press, 1998
256 pp. $39.95
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A powerful critique of the international humanitarian agencies dominating famine relief in Africa. Drawing on the work of economist Amartya Sen, the author argues that famine prevention requires a political contract that allows citizens to hold governments accountable for famine. Such a contract is rare in Africa, although most governments did recognize a political imperative to support their urban populations before the imposition of structural adjustment programs in the 1980s forced fiscal austerity. Today, international humanitarian agencies have unintentionally eliminated accountability by obliging Africans to cede responsibility for famine alleviation to foreign technical experts -- who often fail to address the fundamental political causes of famine. Driven by narrow definitions of social responsibility and their own institutional interests, relief organizations make compromises that often strengthen authoritarian regimes, disempower victims, and debase humanitarian ideals by using crude media hype to compete for funds. The phony famine alert in eastern Zaire in November 1996, vividly described in chapter ten, lends weight to de Waal's provocative conclusion that "most current humanitarian activity in Africa is useless or damaging and should be abandoned."