Sora - a female name from South Sudan, meaning revolution.
SORA - a revolution in global awareness. A revolution of knowledge

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Like all histories, the history of Sudan is controversial and unsettled. Sudan has undergone multiple colonisations from the Turks, the Egyptians and the British and more recently many coups d'etat. This page provides a forum to share research about the history that has led to the formation and growth of the Sudanese Diaspora.


Considering the environmental situation in Sudan, were the famines of the 1980's inevitable? By Maja Graham

This essay argues that theoretically famines are not inevitable. However, the situation in Sudan is such that famine has been a prevalent force throughout its history and will continue to be in the future if measures are not taken to alter environmental practices, the economic situation, and political and social relationships. The author contends that at present, too many people, such as the government and grain merchants, stand to benefit from the consequences of famine, for change to be initiated. The historical context shows this change needs to come from elsewhere.

Everybody thinks they know what a famine is. Yet, how well informed are they? It needs to be demonstrated that famines are not as simple as the commonly envisaged events of mass starvation and mortality. The perceptions of those actually experiencing famine contrast with the standard view of famine. Therefore, the insiders' and victims' view needs to be taken into account when analysing what is essentially their experiences. Who knows better than they? The experiences that will be focussed upon in this essay are centred around two famines that occurred in the 1980's in Sudan. These two famines apparently have distinctive causes; one 'natural', and one 'man-made'. Despite being naturally interrelated, the difference in origin of these famines will reveal that famines are not inevitable.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa with an area of 2.5 million square kilometres . It is situated in the north-east, on the eastern side of the Sahelian zone, encompassing vast areas of desert land. Its landscape is diverse, with the south dominated by lush savanna and centering around the Sudd swamp (See Appendix 1). At the beginning of the 1983-1985 crisis, the Sudanese population was said to be 21.6 million people, with 69 per cent of the population based in rural regions . The fact that there are 500 ethnic groups in Sudan, with varying cultures and religions, and that resources, capital and political representation are unevenly distributed around the country hints at the basis for conflict in this country which presently has 4 million internally displaced peoples and half a million refugees . The majority of those displaced are from the south. Civil war has dominated the recent history of Sudan, with a seventeen year long civil war ending in 1973 and then resuming again eleven years later. This second civil war is still continuing despite recent peace negotiations. In broad terms this war is waged between the northern government and the southern guerilla force the SPLA (Southern Peoples Liberation Army), and is centred around conflicting ethnic and religious identities and control over the south's water, land and oil resources. Though dire situations exist worldwide, Sudan has been deemed "one of the world's longest-running emergencies" .

The drought-led famine of 1983-1985 need not have happened, but was encouraged by factors such as an inefficient government serving its own agenda, which relates to the counteractive economic situation, deleterious agricultural practices, failed and misguided aid relief efforts and civil war. The ensuing 1985-1989 'man-made' famine demonstrates that famines do not have to be related to environmental issues
(ie. drought), rather human influences can actually dominate the famine process. Human actions are certainly not inevitable. Human agency had the potential in the 1980's to avoid a famine, and it still has the ability to prevent future famines. However, the environmental context, does have to be considered, as over the years unsustainable practices in Sudan have caused irreversible damage. This admittedly makes preventing, or ameliorating, famine more difficult, thereby encouraging dependency on others for help.

So, what is famine? There is the famine that is typically portrayed to audiences around the world by the media as a short-term emergency and disaster. This image is naturally related to mass starvation and death, as this apparently appeals to the public. This is the famine defined in most modern Western discourse. However, searching deeper into the literature and experiences of those involved with famine, it appears there is conflicting understanding of what famine is. The population theories of Malthus in the 1800's basically resulted in "the conception of famine as mass starvation unto death" . Central to this Malthusian concept of famine is that food shortage is a necessary and sufficient condition for famine, however, this perspective was recently discredited by Amartya Sen, most notably in his 1981 work; Poverty and Famines. Sen argues and convincingly validates that famines may occur without a significant decline in food availability per head . He alternatively suggests the entitlement analysis of food deprivation and hunger; arguing that a person's threatened "endowment position" and "exchange opportunity" are the cause of famine . However, while Sen's analysis dispells the association of famine with food shortages, he still manages to retain the linkage with mortality; reiterating that famine is a "particularly virulent form of [starvation] causing widespread death" . It is important to note that both Sen's and Malthus's analysis takes a clearly economic perspective. The human agency in the process of famine is blatantly ignored. Consideration of the politics of famine, famine relief and thereby human responsibility is definitely lacking. Keen feels this too, lamenting that "immediate culprits or beneficiaries" are ignored, and the standard method is just to investigate the victims of famine.

Whereas academic approaches to famine insist that it involves starvation and death, the perspectives of those that experience famine certainly emphasise other aspects.
As de Waal claims with respect to a Sahelian herder's opinion, so too does this essay take the Sudanese concept of famine to be "...fundamentally more accurate when it comes to analysing the nature of famine in this part of Africa" . Given the limited ability of accessing varying Sudanese beliefs as to what famine is, one example will be cited to demonstrate how different their views are to the general Western one. De Waal explored the local perspectives of people in Darfur, western Sudan, in the mid-1980's, and found that famine was viewed as being a disruption to a way of life. Although they have important distinctions between famines, and famines that kill, and also between "famines that consist only of hunger and famines that consist of destitution and social breakdown too" , there appears to be a focus on destitution, with an acceptance that suffering hunger is an experience of all the varying degrees of famine.

A step towards understanding famine in general, and how it arises, can be taken by reversing the "tendency to treat famines as a technical malfunction rather than a social experience" . Realising that famine is really what those that suffer it understand it to be, would certainly help in averting the disaster we think famine to be. The famine that we commonly hear about is the absolute final and extreme stages of famine, where starvation and death are occuring. The report, Famine, a man-made disaster?, recognises that famine is "more than people dying from starvation", and states it "is an acute breakdown of society that brings turmoil that cannot be ignored" . The definitional debate around the meaning of famine has its use in accentuating the disasters that can ensue if effort is not made to understand the complexity of famine. In addition, the long-term build up towards a famine actually occuring needs to be recognised. With particular reference to the 1983-1985 Sudanese famine, an ILO Report, written for the Sudanese government, stated that "...the famine did not come as a surprise but was the culmination of a series of crises..." . When analysing the famine process, not only can "long-term causes" be identified, but "precipitating factors" and "relief failure" are also evident . This categorisation is helpful in that precipitating factors, such as drought and other events that actually reduce the food supply, would not have the same disastrous impact if the long-term causes, such as environmental degradation and income instability, were not as severe or present. Furthermore, relief failure would be significantly lessened if there was greater comprehension of the longer-term sources of famine. Thus, the failure of most relief agencies lies in their limited understanding of the complexity of famine.

Rangasami argues that the "basic failure in the understanding of famine we have today is the inability to recognise the political, social and economic determinants that mark the onset of the process" . Following this theory; if the political, social and economic factors were rectified, then the deleterious environmental situation, when presented with drought, might not necessarily result in famine.

Some argue that non-sustainable development is the underlying cause of famine, and that a trigger will tip a community into disaster. These 'triggers' can be classified as either 'man-made' or 'natural' . While obviously not being able to consult records back to time immemorial, according to recent data there has been a huge increase in the occurance of 'natural disasters'. Apparently the decade from 1975 exhibited a 51% increase . This is not due to "...basic climatological and geological processes..." changing, in fact they have not, rather "...more of these events are considered disasters because more people are affected by them..." . Greater population density in marginal and high-risk areas, and environmental alteration or degradation transforms natural events into calamities.

Drought was the most obvious and immediate cause of the 1983-1985 famine in Sudan. Drought means different things to different people, is different in different parts of the world, and definitely has varying impacts on human activities, depending on what they are. In Sudan, where the most significant economic industry is agriculture, accounting for approximately one-third of the total output as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP) , lack of rainfall naturally has severe consequences. Despite rainfall levels having definitely declined over the past three decades in Sudan: the "mean annual rainfall declined by 6.7 percent between 1960-69 and 1970-79 and by 17.7 percent between 1970-79 and 1980-86" . The fact that there has also been a change in seasonal distribution, with a reduction in August rainfall, is more relevant for agriculture . The timing of rainfall is particularly crucial for the rain-fed agricultural subsector, which in Sudan is largely subsistence farming. The majority of this subsector is concentrated in Southern Sudan and the regions of Darfur and Kordofan. From 1981/81 till 1985 the output of the rain-fed agriculture fell by 58 percent, "leading to a decline in the total volume of agricultural output by 25 per cent" . Sudan was so heavily affected by the lack of rainfall because 9 of its 9.5 million acres of arable land are rain-fed. So, "it was the failure of the harvest in the normally surplus producing regions of central and eastern Sudan that tipped the country as a whole into famine in 1985" .

It is accepted that little and variable rainfall makes it difficult, but this extreme variability of the weather in Sudan, with annual rainfall ranging from practically zero in the north to over 1,200mm in the south , has also existed for a long time, allowing survival mechanisms to develop. However, there are other compounding environmental issues, including the evaporation factor. Not only do the high average temperatures ensure high evaporation rates, but so do negative human impacts upon the land, such as land clearing, and overgrazing and 'compactedness' due to animals . Instead of being absorbed by the soil, the water is unable to permeate the surface and is left to evaporate. There are many other actions that have served to render the land useless. Desertification has arguably been encouraged by human activity. Furthermore, deforestation causes erosion which leads to desertification. A damaging cycle then follows; people that had previously relied on the soil for harvesting crops are now forced by the damaged land to collect wood to supplement, if not totally provide, their income. This felling of trees then eventually worsens their own situation by decreasing arable land. Also resulting in environmental degradation is the mechanised farming and irrigation sectors of the agricultural industry. These methods have been pursued for their short-term profitability and security against weather variability. However, for the Sudanese people they have brought nothing but irreversible environmental degradation with all the possible benefits going to those you would expect: the government, the wealthy, and those receiving the crops from export .

It needs to be remembered that most environmental issues existed before this crisis period. It is just that previously people had traditional survival mechanisms that have since been eroded, or the problems have recently been heightened by human actions. Thus, this discussion of 'natural' causes of famine is already linked to human influences and causes. That "this famine is not solely the result of drought, and its resolution will not be achieved solely by the return of rain" , leads us to the other causes of the famines in Sudan.

The economic situation in Sudan can be grasped by knowing that Sudan is the most extreme example in Africa of debt problems, with "annual debt service actually exceeding total foreign exchange earnings" and that Sudan is classified as one of the World's Least Developed Countries by the United Nations . Though economic indicators are not the be all and end all of quality of life levels, they have a role in displaying the relative status of the country, and its capacity to interact economically with other countries. The ability of Sudan to compete in the international economic realm is all the more important in times of drought and instability when it needs to be able to import food stuffs. Primary responsibility for Africa's economic decline is assigned by some to the declining terms of trade for primary agricultural exporters. Even when Sudan works harder, as in 1981 and 1982 when it was able to increase its cotton production by 50 percent, it fails to gain much. Its foreign exchange position actually continued to deteriorate as there was a sharp drop in the world market price for cotton . From 1978 "Sudan's foreign debt mounted so quickly that each published estimate was out of date by the time the figures were public" . In addition, blame can also be directed at the national government that intervened and reduced incentives to agricultural producers by controlling and suppressing prices .

Interlinked with the disadvantageous agricultural practices and the predicament of the rural economy is the crisis of the government itself. The relative urban bias in policy-making and the lack of rural participation is indicative of this crisis. Due to the rapidly declining economic situation in 1978, the Government adopted an adjustment policy which basically brought about its downfall in 1985, as it resulted in eliminating certain public subsidies and consequently evoked political opposition . Well before it was ousted, the government actively delayed an international response to the 1983-1985 famine. Apparently the reasons for this range from national pride, worry that grain merchants would corner supplies if panic was raised, and ignorance of the extent of damage. Action was only taken by the government when famine victims appeared along Nile towns and in Omdurman . Not only did the Sudanese government fail in alerting the international community to the famine, but there is evidence it actively obstructed relief aid; " is a problem. We have some 140 trucks...that we have shipped in...Those trucks have been there, some of them as much as 2 weeks. We seem to have difficulty getting them out of the Sudanese customs. We haven't talked about it publicly until today..." . In general, and specifically in Sudan, famine is consciously political, and so too is famine relief. Frustrated at having to deal with the political situation in Sudan, Leland, chairman of the Select Committee of Hunger in the U.S. states; "Our efforts ought to be relative to human need, not based on...political concessions" .

The failure of international relief to Sudan, particularly from the US, is highlighted in a US Government Hearing in 1985. The lack of effective transport for the provided supplies is well documented, with the chairman bemoaning " I saw 1,300 drought victims who have been living on half the minimum survival rations due to a lack of appropriate transportation for food supplies" . Leland, also complained about the transport issue, but further emphasised the lack of planning; "I am dismayed and disappointed at the seeming lack of advance planning in our operations...We have also known about the existing logistical bottlenecks. Now,...there are about 350,000 tons of food backlogged in Port Sudan...This need not have been the case" . This dissatisfaction of Leland's points towards the differences between emergency relief and then relief as a long-term measure to remove underlying causes of famine, which of course takes more planning. The problem in Sudan is that the emergency-like situations have resulted in little long-term planning. Even the official international relief operation, Operation Lifeline Sudan, formed in 1988 in response to difficulties of providing relief during a civil war, defies conventional definitions of relief as short-term and time-limited .

The famines in Sudan in the early years of the 1980s were so different, that any attempt to provide conformity of relief would be met with varying degrees of success and relevance . Yet, the simplistic notion of famine as mass starvation and death, dominated and still features in the mentality of relief agencies, resulting in uniform methods of emergency relief, with food being the focus of alleviation. At the time there was acknowledgement that relief had been misguided, focussing on food, when medical support is also an essential provision; "People have been fed in relief centers and camps, but not immunized against the diseases that prey on the malnourished" . In his journal, Dr David Heiden also laments the simplicity of the relief, the political obtrusions, and the lack of planning . He writes "Political conflicts, lunacy, and civil war turned this crisis into immeasurable disaster" .

The civil wars in Sudan are intertwined with an extremely complex history. The 1985-1989 famine in the south, was "extremely troubling, as attempts to cultivate the land are sabotaged by armed conflict" . This famine in the south was linked to the earlier one through a supply of internal refugees from the northern regions, and by a lack of food supply previously counted upon in times of war. The natural resources that exist in the south, particularly for the Dinka, the largest tribal group in Sudan, ie. the soil and the oil (See Appendix 1), have actually been identified as making them more vulnerable to exploitative processes, and thus exposure to famine . Therefore, rather than equating poverty or wealth to vulnerability, vulnerability can be assessed according to the "...victims' place in society, of their ability to effect change and of the obligations society has towards them" . Civil war needs to be seen as something that emerges from relationships and conflicts within society in order for change to occur. The civil wars and associated famines in Sudan can "usefully be seen as a deepening of exploitative processes already existing in "normal" times" .

It should therefore be evident that although famines can be naturally, and thus uncontrollably, sparked, governments can provide the kindling and can also continue to fuel the fire. There is no doubt that drought initiated the 1983-1985 famine, as well as uncountable previous ones, but drought was only able to have such a fierce impact due to the culmination of various other factors. It is clear that famine is avoidable at each stage of its development. In theory it is avoidable and not inevitable. However, the context in Sudan, that has been documented or alluded to above, provides a very difficult situation to reverse. The development of oil reserves, providing more than $2 million a day at present , however, has the potential to inject new funds towards developing a better framework for development of the country. By altering the state of the economy, and addressing issues of equity, distribution and representation, the need for relief for famine will naturally be lessened, even in times of drought.

It is also clear in the context of disasters, that we have become accustomed and accepting of certain disasters. Even if we can predict famines and we know they are presently relatively inevitable in Sudan, what is the point of this knowledge when we just account for disasters in our budgets. We merely accept that they exist, rather than attacking their root causes. Also associated with this apathy is the obvious differing value we place on different peoples' lives. Having identified, if only briefly, the causes of famine in Sudan, we know what action can be taken there. Bringing the issue back home, here in the western world our lack of humanity is a fundamental problem.


Primary Sources

Cater, Nick. Sudan: The Roots of Famine: A Report for Oxfam. Oxford: Oxfam, 1986.

Emergency famine relief needs in Ethiopia and Sudan: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Africa of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives. Ninety-ninth Congress, first session. September 19, 1985. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1986.

Ethiopia and Sudan: Warfare, Politics and Famine: Hearing before the Select Committee on Hunger, House of Representatives. One hundredth Congress, second session. July 14, 1988. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1988.

Famine, a man-made disaster?: a report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues. New York: Vintage Books, 1985.

Heiden, David. Dust to Dust: A Doctor's View of Famine in Africa. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Report of the ILO Identification and Programming Mission to the Republic of the Sudan, September 1985, After the Famine: A Programme of Action to Strengthen the Survival Strategies of Affected Populations. Geneva: International Labour Office, 1986.

Teklu, Tesfaye; von Braun, Joachim & Zaki, Elsayed. Drought and Famine Relationships in Sudan: Policy Implications, Research Report 88. International Food Policy Research Institute, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Curtis, Donald; Hubbard, Michael, & Shepherd, Andrew. Preventing Famine: Policies and prospects for Africa. London: Routledge, 1988.

"Desperate times: War and famine in Sudan," Horizons, Oxfam Publications, July 1998.

de Waal, Alexander. Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan, 1984-1985. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Glantz, Michael H. "Drought and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa." In Drought and Hunger in Africa: Denying Famine a Future, edited by Michael H. Glantz, 37-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Hirst, David "Sudan buckles under strain of refugees," The Guardian, 28 January 1985.

Keen, David. Benefits of Famine: a political economy of famine and relief in southwestern Sudan, 1983-1989. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Lofchie, Michael F. "Africa's Agricultural Crisis: An Overview." In Africa's Agrarian Crisis: the Roots of Famine, edited by Stephen K. Commins; Michael F. Lofchie & Rhys Payne, 3-18. Boulder, Colorado: L. Rienner, 1986.

Rangasami, A. "'Failure of Exchange Entitlements' Theory of Famine: A Response." Economic and Political Weekly 20 (41) (1985, October 12th): 19.

Salopek, Paul. "Shattered Sudan: Drilling for Oil, Hoping for Peace." National Geographic, February 2003, 30-67.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Sen, Amartya. "Food Entitlements and Economic Chains: Hunger, Entitlements, and Linkages." In Hunger in History: Food Shortage, Poverty, and Deprivation, edited by Lucile F. Newman, 374-386. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Walker, Peter. Famine Early Warning Systems: Victims and Destitution. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 1989.

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