Forty Years After: Reflections on Food, Famine and Hunger in the West African Sahel
Presidents Hall, Franklin Hall
Almost a half century ago, the West African Sahel – stretching from Senegal in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east – experienced a raft of massive food crises in which millions of people died from hunger and disease. Situated on this larger canvas, during the mid-1970s, I tried to understand the relations between drought-prone regions and the onset and dynamics of famine through an historical and local village study in northern Nigeria. The book which emerged from that research – Silent Violence – was published in 1983 but was reprinted in 2014 against the backdrop of recurrent and widespread hunger and food insecurity in the region. In 2016, some 4 million people were again confronting famine-like conditions in the northeast of Nigeria alone. In this lecture, I revisit Silent Violence as a way of exploring why hunger and famine have proved so durable and resistant in semi-arid West Africa. Currently, the region is caught between the challenges of global climate change and new threats associated with terrorism, illicit economies, and so-called “fragile and conflicted states.” Most striking of all is the rise of a new and widely influential development discourse and form of analysis – resilience theory – which purports to offer new insight on vulnerability and food insecurity, and offers sets of practices to build resilient communities, households, and individuals: to make farmers and pastoralist drought- and famine-proof. By revisiting the critical analyses of famine that emerged in the 1980s, I offer an assessment of these contemporary approaches to food security in the Sahel and consider whether they are capable of resolving the serial food crises and the recurrent famine-proneness of the region.