Last week, David Loyn of the BBC wrote about the crisis in Niger and asked "How many dying babies make a famine?"
Famine is a troublesome word with a very specific meaning to the professional aid community.The debate over "famine" is much the same as the debate over "genocide" in Darfur
It is usually taken to define a situation in which a high proportion of the general population are vulnerable to death by hunger-related disease.
This describes a much more intense situation than the loose way that famine is generally understood - and the pictures of starving babies in Niger certainly look like "famine" to the outside world.
In technical terms Niger's President Mamadou Tandja may be right to say that this is not a famine.
"For those who are dying from acute malnutrition and related diseases, the debate about whether there have been enough deaths to justify the famine label, and the extent to which this exceeds the normal hungry season mortality rate is not helpful.Last September, the US declared that genocide was taking place in Darfur, but three months later, the report (PDF file) of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur concluded that it was not, though it also stipulated
"Avoiding the famine label has often been convenient for those seeking to justify slow or failed responses."
The conclusion that no genocidal policy has been pursued and implemented in Darfur by the Government authorities, directly or through the militias under their control, should not be taken in any way as detracting from the gravity of the crimes perpetrated in that region. International offences such as the crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been committed in Darfur may be no less serious and heinous than genocide.But the press responded, not with headlines reading "Massive Crimes Against Humanity in Darfur," but rather with headlines such as "U.N. report: Darfur not genocide."
But the point was essentially moot, as one thing quickly became clear: overwhelming evidence of massive crimes against humanity could not get the world to act, nor could a genocide declaration. In fact, it seems that nothing could prod the global community to act to address the situation in Darfur, be it genocide, quasi-genocide, or "merely" crimes against humanity.
As Loyn reports of Niger, warnings of an impending food crisis have been raised since November, but nobody paid attention until it was too late
They did not respond to the requests on paper as they did to pictures of dying babies.The reverse is now occurring regarding Darfur. It has become, in the words of Eric Reeves, a "genocide by attrition," and the world has stopped paying attention.
Last month, the UN reported that violence in Darfur had diminished over the past year, mainly
because militia have run out of targets after destroying hundreds of villages.
As Reeves has written, the genocide in Darfur is now
[M]ore a matter of engineered disease and malnutrition than violent killing. In other words, disease and malnutrition proceeding directly from the consequences of violent attacks on villages, deliberate displacement, and systematic destruction of the means of agricultural production among the targeted non-Arab or African tribal groups became the major killers.It is entirely possible that Darfur will not begin to receive sustained coverage again until this
"genocide by attrition" has taken the lives of tens of thousands more and footage of dying babies in Darfur begins to show up on the nightly news.
And then, in lieu of actually addressing that problem, we can have a debate about whether or not this new situation meets the technical definition of "famine."