Bishop Hill links to an article by Oxfam’s research director, Duncan Green. Says the Bishop…
Duncan Green is head of research at Oxfam GB and has written an article exploring the question of whether the drought in the Horn of Africa is caused by climate change. The article is here and an edited version appears at the Guardian. I’m sure that comment will be freer at Mr Green’s place.
Green presents evidence to support the idea that the drought in the Horn of Africa is global warming in action: anecdotal evidence from the locals and increases in surface temperatures. He also notes rather more importantly that the rainfall records are ambiguous.
The Bishop is right to suggest that Green has to turn somersaults to make the famine in the Horn of Africa something to do with climate change. And Green admits it… Sort of…
Conclusion? Attributing the current drought directly to climate change is impossible, but in the words of Sir John Beddington, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, in a talk at Oxfam last week, ‘worldwide, events like this have a higher probability of occurring as a result of climate change.’ Moreover, unless something is done, the current suffering offers a grim foretaste of the future – temperatures in East Africa are going to rise and rainfall patterns will change, making a bad situation worse.
So, although we can’t say that this is climate change in action, this is what it will look like. So much for science. But the ‘science’ didn’t bother me as much as what followed in the article.
What to do? Firstly remember that while the drought is caused by lack of rainfall, famine is man-made. As Amartya Sen famously observed, famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership. It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past.
Secondly, the famine shows the extreme vulnerability of poor people to weather events like failed rains. Governments and the international community have to save lives now, but also act to reduce that chronic vulnerability, building local abilities to manage the drought cycle, improving the flow of data, information and ideas for adapting to climate change and drastically increasing long-term investment in smallholder agriculture and pastoralism, which have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of East Africans, provided they are supported (rather than ignored) by governments.
Beyond helping East Africa and other vulnerable regions adapt to impending climate change, it is of course also incumbent on the rich and emerging economies to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it. Fail to do that, and all attempts at adaptation are likely to offer only temporary relief.
The first thing to notice is Green’s use of Amartya Sen’s argument: famines do not occur in functioning democracies. It’s a point made here very often. It’s not climatic phenomena which determine the outcome of some climatic or natural phenomenon; social conditions are far more decisive. The test of this is to compare two natural disasters of equal magnitude — earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc — falling on places whose economies are very different. Invariably, the human cost differs by several orders of magnitude. Earthquakes that barely cause any disruption to daily life in advanced economies kill thousands in less developed places, and leave many more homeless. As Green notes, ‘The difference between the minor disruption of hosepipe bans, and the misery and suffering in the Horn, is down to a failure of politics and leadership’. The point should be obvious: if hosepipe bans got more frequent or more serious here in the UK, there would be a lot of angry people, demanding answer from utilities companies, public agencies, and politicians.
It’s interesting, then, that Green should go on to say, ‘It is no accident that those communities worst affected by the drought are not just those blighted by conflict, but also by decades of official neglect and contempt from governments, who see pastoralism as an unwanted relic of the past’. Green sees the ‘neglect’ of the interests of pastoral communities as the ‘failure of politics’. But the reality of pastoralism is that it precludes those who endure it from becoming a political force. The relationship individuals have with each other and their ‘environment’ in pastoral society is immediate and transparent. Thus, such societies are more vulnerable, and less able to assert themselves ‘politically’. The business of subsistence consumes time. Put most simply and somewhat flippantly, if you cannot read, because you have no real need to, how are you going to write to your MP to express your feelings? And if you have no stake in the economy, how are you going to assert your interests?
Pastoral communities are excluded from politics as such in almost the same way that the peasants of medieval England were largely unable to resist the enclosure of common land, forcing them from it. It was not ‘neglect’ which led to the rough treatment of peasants; it was the fact that political freedoms are created, not given. Green imagines that ‘politics’ fails to respond to pastoral societies, but he forgets that pastoralism and democracy are rarely seen together in a meaningful way, and thus he forgets Sen’s point — famines do not occur in functioning democracies. The abolition of the English peasant class was ugly. But the industrialisation of the UK created the possibility of democracy and other freedoms, albeit bloody and hard-won. Feudalism was put in its place, it didn’t take it up voluntarily.
Curiously for the the research director of a ‘development’ charity, Green seems to emphasise that there is a responsibility to ‘protect’ pastoral society, rather than to encourage — or enable — its transformation. This does two things. First, it locks the members of pastoral societies into that lifestyle — which it celebrates as ‘sustainable’ — and limits its possibilities. Second, it creates a ‘political’ role for agencies such as Oxfam at the expense of development — their influence is legitimised by the implausibility of political or industrial development, which it also precludes. I find that a grotesque thing for a ‘development’ agency to be engaged in. Rather than helping, Oxfam looks more like a parasite. The concept of ‘sustainability’ turns the concept of ‘development’ completely upside down. Progress means retrogression.
There have been several posts on this blog about Oxfam’s need for victims to legitimise its function, here, here, here and here — so there’s no need to repeat the point. (Though Oxfam didn’t listen then.)
NGOs like Oxfam have huge and growing influence over people’s lives. Yet they are completely unaccountable. And yet they presume to sit over troubled countries to complain about ‘failed politics’. And they do so without being challenged. We give money to them because we think it will make a direct difference to somebody’s life. But the only difference it seems to make is to advance Oxfam’s self-interested agenda, at the expense of development. The next time you consider donating to them, remember that you’re giving money to an organisation that would rather see ‘pastoral society’ preserved forever in aspic, rather than enjoying the roads, railways, airports, fridges, medicine, factories, shops, schools, hospitals, water infrastructure, democracy, liberties and opportunities that you enjoy. I can’t help thinking… maybe that’s the point.