We live in a world divided between those living with surplus of food production and the others on food insecurity. While tons of foods are thrown away every day in the Global North, strive for food security continues in the Global South, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Famine is economically debated and different approaches rose to explain this phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s, causes of famine were due to a food availability decline (FAD) according to Malthus’ viewpoint of overpopulation.
However, this approach is challenged by scholars, mainly by Sen (1981), supporting that famine was due to entitlement failure of not having “command over food”. The entitlement approach became the academic mainstream since the 1980s and increasingly influencing policy-makers. Conversely, the idea that food insecurity is solely due to the food supply is debatable. Do you think that famine, food insecurity and malnutrition are man-made crisis or are there precipitating external factors to take into account? These points will be discussed in this article and we are going to look at the Eritrean case and its strategy for national food security.
As we are all aware, the region of the Horn of Africa is often known as the zone most hit by famines in which food crisis occurs on average at least once every ten years. Some countries of the Horn have managed to eradicate it, while others are still struggling such as Somalia. Why does it persist in some areas while others have eradicated it? What does it take to ensure food security?
The question of food security, which is defined as “the supply of an adequate amount of food so as to meet the nutritional needs of all the people at all time” is matter of debate (Berck 1993). Many scholars or policy makers will solely look at the issue of food insecurity due to external factors, such as war or weather-related scarcity. Nonetheless, from a theoretical point of view, policy decisions would impact on food availability in terms of access and supply.
In other words, the entitlement approach explains clearly that the issue is not on the availability but on what a person can get under the three embodiments of this theory, entitlement, endowment and exchange entitlement mapping (Sen 1981b).
Accordingly, there are four main categories of sources of food: “production based entitlement (growing food), trade based entitlement (buying food), own labor based (working for food), and inheritance and transfer (being given food by others)” (Devereux 2001:246).
Hence, the main issue remains the distributional problem in which one group will have the command over food, subsequently, impoverishing another group’s entitlement and be a factor of food insecurity leading (most probably) to famine (Keen 1994:213). The power of food is, therefore, important to consider in understanding the causes of food insecurity and famine. As we said earlier, food security requires having sufficient, sustainable, timely, nutritive access to food. In doing so, food security strategy requires to have both national food security and household food security secured. What is the difference between the two? Having national food security does not necessary ensure that households are food secure. In fact, at national level, the government would be responsible in providing enough food through production or imports while at household level; the question of ownership and prevention against poverty would influence their food security or in other words the household’s purchasing power.
The Eritrean context
Eritrea has one of the most arid climates in Africa in which the rainy season is not necessarily helping the fight for food security. With the assumption that the question of food insecurity is due to man-made failure to make the appropriate decisions, how is Eritrea doing on this issue? On media and on social media sites, some would argue that there is famine in Eritrea, people are starving and so on… But how is it in reality? Curious as I am and with the different trips and spending months in the most arid areas of the country, I have not encounter any sign of food insecurity and even less of famine for the past years… Clearly, the entitlement approach has both its right and wrong when I look at the situation in Eritrea. Without a doubt, Eritrea food security is still under work with about 80% of the population depending on rain fed agriculture, agro-pastoralism and pastoralism. Plus, the agricultural sector accounts for almost 25% of the country’s GDP.
During the thirty years of war, the population was facing drought consequently leading to famine. As a result, the EPLF implemented a food distribution program to the population in liberated zones. At independence, the country implemented the Eritrea Grain Board (EGB) in 1993. The aim was to implement a strategic food reserve policy in order to manage the food reserves. The EGB has for mission to stock, preserve and manage the food reserve but also purchasing cereals and oilseeds from open market at reasonable prices. The idea is to also stabilize the grain market and protect consumers against excessive inflation.
There are two storages in the country, based in Asmara and Dekemhare (MoA, 2004). This is one aspect of preventing food insecurity adequately. Subsequently, the Ministry of Agriculture in partnership with other government bodies, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the European Union (EU) among others implemented different strategies. In fact, striving for food security requires to look at the external factors, one of them being poverty. As a result, the Interim- Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (2004) was implemented followed by the Agricultural Development Program (2008-2010) and the Eritrea Food Security Strategy (2004). The several strategic plans continue to operate in the country in which multiple stakeholders are involved. To strengthen this, IFAD has several operations in Eritrea where the post-crisis rural recovery and development program, the Gash Barka livestock and agricultural development project and eastern lowlands Wadi development are completed. IFAD is now working on supporting national agriculture project and fisheries development project (IFAD 2013).
Despite the tremendous efforts by the Government in securing food to its citizens, external factors cannot be denied. Although food insecurity is mostly due to human beings’ decisions, there are externalities, which cannot be ignored. In fact, in 2002-2003, Eritrea was severely hit by drought, which had a direct impact on agricultural production, subsequently, on living conditions to a high segment of the population at risk of famine. It is said to have been the worst year since independence. Further, other external factors have to be considered. The severe drought followed the 1998-2000-border war in which populations were forcibly displaced; arable land left out while an important segment of the population was mobilized into the army.
In addition, as the population depends heavily on traditional agriculture and farming, the absence of water and cattle has impacted their way of living. Additionally, mines cover many areas in Eritrea. With all these external factors, natural hazards constraint their economic activities. This is where policy makers play a major role to tackle this food insecurity. As a result, external factors combined with natural hazards influenced the access to food in Eritrea, the Government implemented successive policies with the help of the international community. As a matter of fact, in 2004 about 70- 80% of household received food aid to respond to the short-term crisis. Nonetheless, the short-term response is thin compared to the medium- and long-term strategies implemented in the country. The commitment of Eritrea to eliminate food insecurity cannot be ignored. Although the country is mostly arid, Eritrea has managed to ensure that all citizens have access to adequate and nutritious food.
The construction of micro-dams throughout the country is already showing its effect on securing food. Moreover, the traditional methods of farming and agriculture is slowly being replaced with more effective and modern techniques such as drip water irrigation system which enable to have three farming seasons in one year. Further to this, the development of cooperatives in dairy farming, meat or any other food items allow small-scale farmers to ensure an income while vocational trainings to diversify their income-generating activities are enhanced. Indeed, as about 30% of households are female-headed one, many women have learned different activities such as sewing to sustain their families. Accordingly, the EU in partnership with the Government of Eritrea and other stakeholders support agricultural projects through the construction of dams, hillside terraces and irrigation structures, the production of 6 million tree seedlings, the irrigation of 1,000 ha of land using solar-driven pumps for example (EU Delegation in Eritrea, Dec. 2014).
The issue of purchasing power is also taken seriously, with the prices rise of commodities, the system of subsidies also known as coupons is the best method to ensure that all Eritreans have access to basic food and food-related items. The system of subsidies is rare in Africa and surely without this, many would have been left out of the society.
Clearly, food security is challenged by both natural hazards and wrong policy decisions.
Famine and food insecurity can be man-made disasters only if any prevention is not undertaken with timely measures and the power over food will influence it. Thus, adequate policies would be the driving force to either eradicate or worsen this crisis. Eritrea, way before its independence has already focused on having a clear distributional system in which all segments of the population have access to food. Indeed, the country, which faces climate change, with variable rainy season, manages to secure household food intake and national food security provision through series of strategy implemented since 1993. Eritrea which still has a high amount of imported goods compared to its export is undergoing tremendous work in switching this balance through investment in more efficient agricultural methods, securing the access to water, diversifying income-generating activities and ensuring the access to basic needs through the system of subsidies.