On the Somali Famine

by Don Boudreaux on July 21, 2011

in Current Affairs, Hunger, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

It’s unspeakably tragic that thousands of Somalis are today starving to death (“U.N.: Famine in Somalia is killing tens of thousands,” July 22).  And it’s true that one proximate cause of this starvation is drought.  But blaming such starvation on weather conditions is lame; it is to confuse a proximate cause for a deeper cause – and a deeper cause that is avoidable through better policies.

The earth is full of people (such as residents the American southwest) who live in places that receive very little rainfall, or that endure prolonged droughts, yet who aren’t remotely at risk of starving.  Understanding the starvation in Somalia requires an explanation of why Somalis enjoy no ready access, such as we have in America, to global supplies of food.  (There is, after all, no global drought.)  Such understanding demands also an explanation of why Somalis – unlike, say, farmers in rainfall-poor parts of California – don’t use artificial irrigation and other modern techniques to ensure against drought and to increase crop yields.

Reasonable people can disagree over the reasons Somalia’s economy prevents Somalis from escaping subsistence living conditions.  But explaining today’s starvation in Somalia as being the result of drought is as helpful as, say, explaining growing world population as being the result of sex.  Deeper thinking is needed.

Donald J. Boudreaux

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SheetWise July 21, 2011 at 4:49 pm

“… as helpful as, say, explaining growing world population being the result of sex.”


Kirby July 21, 2011 at 8:00 pm

indeed a poor metaphor, as other places obviously handle drought. Nobody has to attempt to prevent sex, except the potential parents, and if one area becomes less fertile they will not tap into the global sex market, which would mean hiring foreign prostitutes.

Ken July 21, 2011 at 9:33 pm

It is in fact a very good metaphor.

The point is that humans are actually having less kids than in the past, yet in the past population stayed relatively constant for over a thousand years, till a couple hundred years ago. I wonder what could have happened in the last two or three hundred years that would cause a population to explode, yet the amount of children per couple actually decreases. Any ideas?


Kirby July 21, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Easy: When two people have five kids, it counts as 2:5
When one person has five kids with four other people, it counts as 1:1

Ken July 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm


What are you talking about? What’s easy?

In the last few hundred years the number of children PER MOTHER has been steadily declining. The survival rate for children to live till five years old is almost 100% today in the west and has dramatically increased in nearly every other geographic location. Any ideas on how many children died before the age of five before 1700?

Life expectancy in the US in 1700 was 25 in the south and 50 in the north. In 2000 it was 77. That’s a trebling for the south and a 50% increase for the north.

You want to claim that population growth and birthrates are somehow a statistical trick creating an illusion of a growing population and declining birthrates. But that is completely wrong.


Ken July 21, 2011 at 10:15 pm

The sex analogy’s point is that in a self-sufficient market, i.e., a completely localized market, droughts and medicines are completely local. No one is taking advantage of what’s happening elsewhere as happens in a globalized free trade economy.

If you depend completely on locally grown foods, you’re SOL when the drought comes. If you depend completely on locally developed medicine you’re SOL when pretty much any medical complication arises.


Ron H July 22, 2011 at 3:30 am

Gee, I think the point is that sex is almost always the proximate cause of population increase, but it isn’t a sufficient explanation, any more than a local drought is sufficient to explain the current famine in Somalia. There must be other factors to consider.

Nor is it sufficient to attribute plane crashes to gravity.

Samantha Jane July 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

The current ‘famine’ is due to ‘pirates’ hindering any volunteer or emergency aid operations that attempt to offer assistance. There may be a drought, but the fallout has been exacerbated by the presence of militant groups (al-Shabab).

It’s just too dangerous.

Ron H July 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm

While you are absolutely correct that current attempts to alleviate famine due to drought are being hindered by the political situation in the region, the fact that such aid is even necessary is an indictment of the poverty in which people in this region live, and their inability to rise out of it.

It’s hard to imagine, for example, a similar famine occurring, or foreign aid being necessary, to help farmers in Central California, during a drought.

Kathy July 28, 2011 at 12:58 pm

ummmmm.. no. Thats just being racist. Im somali myself and i find that very offensive. What if something happened to america and people refused to help because they thought a bunch of bloodthirsty cowboys were going to stop them. You are going to say, “well we are not all cowboys and the cowboys wont stop them.” Well exactly. Your just being prejudice a saying all somalis are pirates. Well you cant say anything about a place you have never been to. And along with all those other racist, you need a reality check.

Ken July 28, 2011 at 1:32 pm


What’s part of Samantha’s comment was racist? Pointing out that there are pirates in Somalia? Or the fact that terrorist group al-Shabab is exacerbating the problem?

Neither one of those statements are racist. They are simple points of fact.

“What if something happened to america and people refused to help because they thought a bunch of bloodthirsty cowboys were going to stop them.”

Isn’t that the point? Something terrible happens ever year in America, yet there are no bloodthirsty groups anywhere preventing aid.

“Your just being prejudice a saying all somalis are pirates.”

Samantha did no said “all”, only you did. Maybe you should learn to read.

“Well you cant say anything about a place you have never been to.”

Why? Do I really need to go to Somalia to know it’s a shit hole? Do I really need to go to Somalia to know there are pirates there? Do I really need to go to Somalia to know there are terrorists there? Do I really need to go to Somalia to know that these aren’t just nuisances, but very large problems in Somalia? Of course not.

“And along with all those other racist, you need a reality check.”

You’re the one who needs a reality check. You seem to think any sort of criticism of Somalia is automatically racist. It isn’t. The fact that you think it is shows how biased you are. Ignoring these problems because you think recognizing the existence pirates and terrorists in Somalia is racist only demonstrates the distorted lens through which you see the world.


SheetWise July 23, 2011 at 4:02 am

“Gee, I think the point is that sex is almost always the proximate cause of population increase …”

Almost always? This is where I became confused, and I think it is sufficient.

Ron H July 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Among humans, sex appears to be the only cause, and I’m unaware of any others, but I dislike using absolute terms. :-)

Ron H July 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Actually, while sex is necessary for a population to continue to exist at all, infant mortality rates and other survival rates may be more important to whether a population increases or decreases than the the rate of sexual activity.

Jeff Haymond July 21, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Good post. But I was expecting you to respond to this line in the FT article on the same subject:
As with many famines, market failure rather than lack of food is to blame.


Unfortunately your job never ends!

Ceeby July 21, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I believe that uncertain property rights keep them from improving the land with such methods. Property rights and the rule of law, free markets, and free trade are what they need, not food aid.

Don Boudreaux July 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Yes indeed.

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Well… how about “in addition to food aid”.

Hard to establish the rule of law on an empty stomach.

Craig S July 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Well… how about “in addition to food aid”.

Yes, because aid to Africa has show to be so successful thus far.

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 6:01 pm

There’s lots of reasons for that, but what you’re refering to is aid to countries that are in a hard place, but aren’t necessarily in the midst of an actual famine. Throwing money of them not surprisingly doesn’t produce stable institutions and a trajectory of development.

In the midst of an actual famine, even recognizing that you’re not going to morph them into a developing country, I think it’s fairly safe to say that any food that gets sent will be eaten and appreciated. Saying “it’s probably worth giving food to people during a drought” is quite different from saying “I think development aid can create market economies”.

Kirby July 21, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Look what happened after Apartheid. You can give African countries farms that make food to be eaten and appreciated, they just can’t use them.

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm

OK clearly there’s some kind of disconnect here.

I’m saying in the middle of the famine handing out bags of rice sounds like a reasonable thing to do.

I’m explicitly saying that we can’t airlift in the rule of law.

Kirby July 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm

I’m saying that we can give them whatever we want, they won’t be able to productively create their own facilities aside from what they have now.

Kirby July 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm

FYI: Not racism, society just can’t jump like that.

Subhi Andrews July 21, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Food aid will be wonderful. I am willing to contribute to some reputable NGO working on relief.

Ike July 21, 2011 at 5:55 pm

…and likewise, it is difficult to deliver that food aid in the absence of the Rule of Law; it’s often intercepted by warlords and local thugs who engorge themselves while using the rest to buy loyalty from the starved.

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 6:03 pm


I hope that very real risk doesn’t stop aid organizations from making the effort.

Pete July 21, 2011 at 7:08 pm

In some ways, I hope it does. Why would we want to waste resources on handouts to brutal dictators?

On the other hand, some methods of aid have proven much better than others. Usually when non-profits and even governmental entities start to think like economists or entrepreneurs, aid works better. When they think like planners and try to be superheroes, they get the acclaim they desire, but not the results for the afflicted.

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I’m a strong proponent of thinking like an economist rather than a planner.

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 8:53 pm

I don’t know this area, but I’d suspect that warlords are much more likely to get involved when money is involved. If you send UN/Red Cross/etc. teams into villages with food (not handing out cash in a capital city) I’m guessing it would do some good right now.

vikingvista July 21, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Interestingly, it is easier today to get food aid to starving Somalis than it was back when they had a government.

nailheadtom July 22, 2011 at 1:59 am

What you call a “warlord” may be to his followers a father, uncle, son, employer, defender, local hero or regional representative. Lack of sophisticated elected government doesn’t imply a concurrent lack of rule of law or personal freedom.

Steve_0 July 21, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Food aid from whom?
The magical stuff that drops from the sky?

Daniel Kuehn July 21, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Yes. Magical stuff. Precisely what I’m refering to. Gryffindor and all that.

Kirby July 21, 2011 at 8:01 pm

You’re right. It isn’t the pirates, the lack of government, the anarchy, the cheap guns from russia given to already unstable gangs. It is the lack of property rights.

Daniel Kuehn July 22, 2011 at 6:52 am

Has it ever occurred to you that there might be some mutual reinforcement between the absence of his list and the presence of your list?

I’m happy to agree with your list. But let’s not pretend you’re furnishing a counter-argument.

muirgeo July 22, 2011 at 12:41 am

Can we send you in their to show them how it works?

Sats July 21, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Its a news report on hunger and starvation in Somalia ,not an analysis on why Somalis lack drip irrigation or modern techniques to fight drought. Learn to take it easy once in a while.

John Dewey July 21, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I disagree with your interpretation of the article, Sats. It’s not a report on hunger and starvation, but an attempt to blame the U.S. and other wealthy nations for the deaths of thousands:

“But some aid agencies accused the United States and other Western donors of failing to respond to the distress in Somalia quickly enough,

The article quotes one aid director who is very clear on who is to blame:

“the response from international donors and regional governments has been mostly slow, inadequate and complacent,” Fran Equiza, the regional director of the British aid agency Oxfam, said in a statement. “There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act.”

Don Boudreaux is correct in pointing out that the caus of these deaths lie not with either drought or with the inaction by wealthy nations. Rather, the Somali people themselves, through their failure to implement rule of law, caused these deaths.

Kirby July 21, 2011 at 8:05 pm

I hate people who blame one person’s misfortune on another person’s slow response in giving them things from their own pocket.

Ron H July 23, 2011 at 8:17 pm

“There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act.

That phrase tells me everything I need to know about about the speaker. too bad it came so late in the quote, or else i could have stopped reading earlier, knowing the rest of it will be sheer nonsense.

Russ Nelson July 21, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Somalis *have* property rights and the rule of law (the Xeer). They even have reasonably free markets and trade. A big problem with their property rights is that they’re held in common for the benefit of the clan. Property cannot be bought and sold; only rented. Another part of the problem is that it gets exCEPTionaLY hot down by the ocean. Somalis are traditionally herders, so they move their herds up into the mountains where it’s cooler during the summer months.

Nomadic life and property rights in the western tradition are difficult to reconcile. We forget how much of the structure of our society is based on the needs of plants.

vikingvista July 21, 2011 at 5:29 pm

You make a good point about trade and law in modern Somalia. Perhaps the most important reason Somalians aren’t more capable of withstanding drought, in spite of its recurrent nature, is institutional, cultural, and material setbacks due to 23 years of forced collectivization. Considering their starting point, it seems to me Somalians have made impressive progress.

Jim July 22, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Property rights are a prerequisite for significant wealth creation and innovation. Unfortunately tribal cultures and property rights do not mix well.

Some years ago at the request of a government program, we purchased 100 cows and a bull for an Indian tribe; the idea was to teach them to raise their own cattle instead of giving them food. The first weekend after the cattle arrived, they joyously had a feast and butchered and ate the bull since the male is always the most prestigious.

In my connection with small business aid in Africa, I believe our success does not just depend on transferring understanding of property rights. We must also partner with them and daily model the habits and thinking that are necessary for success over years of acculturation; a sheep or cattle farmer can not just take a week off because he wants to visit his relatives.

These examples seem silly, but they represent a way of thinking that is foreign in many places in the world. We take them for granted.

vikingvista July 22, 2011 at 4:20 pm

“Unfortunately tribal cultures and property rights do not mix well.”

Governments and property rights commonly do not mix well.

I like your comments about “way of thinking”.

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:24 pm

You are full of yourself!

Ken July 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm

For speaking the truth?


Jack July 21, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Don: A better analogy to explain your point is the analogy someone used to describe the role “greed” played in the financial crisis: “Blaming the financial crisis on greed is akin to blaming a plane crash on gravity.”

The Other Tim July 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm

This may veer a little off topic, but I think Thomas Sowell’s problem with blaming things on “greed” which he explained in his Basic Economics is a better response. In essence, when one blames something on greed one presumes that certain humans can consciously shape what the economy is going to look like. In reality, things like prices and wages and interest rates are determined by the emergent order arising from the choices of all participants in a market. To say “greed caused X” is to presume that for some reason X was exempted from the control of market forces and instead controlled by human intentions.

R.S.Sundaresh July 21, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Lord Peter Bauer:
The misery in Ethiopia , Sudan and elsewhere in Africa is not the result simply of unfavorable weather, external causes, or population pressure. It is the result of enforced reversion to subsistence conditions under the impact of the breakdown of public security, suppression of private trade, or forced collectivization.

Jim July 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm

I see Mandela is moving South Africa there quite quickly as well. Why is he a hero?

And certainly the foreign aid, which often enters through local government channels, increases corruption and often tends to destroy property rights further.

Tim July 21, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I confess I’m left scratching my head as to why you willfully open yourself to the broadside retort that Somalia’s problem is it lacks an effective federal government. Your tone was very tame, Don. It was almost as if you were tip-toeing around this one. What gives?

muirgeo July 22, 2011 at 12:48 am

It’s very hard for some one who hates government so much to admit that it is necassary… because then once you open that door any discussion on the degree and purpose of government becomes legitimate.

When one complains so much about government the Somali situation makes you look and feel kinda like a spoiled brat for talking about government as if its holding a gun to your head and as if it is nothing but pure evil.

Man I bet those Somali’s would give anything for some government guns held to their heads.

Trapper_John July 22, 2011 at 8:47 am

A mighty man of straw have you slain. Once again.

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:32 pm

In Somalia, all act like big government. It is a foregone conclusion something is wrong! Freedom and capitol building are the only solution. A government should form whose only goal is protection of personal property. This includes a persons own body! Everything else will emerge.

SheetWise July 21, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The older I get, the more I understand the wisdom of the U.S. founders, especially in the second amendment. I’m beginning to believe — or have already arrived at the conclusion — that arming all citizens of a country is probably a better solution than intervention. After all, they’re the only ones who know who to shoot. It would have been a better solution in both Iraq and Afghanistan to keep weapons flowing into every household while also protecting the borders against opportunistic intruders. Level the playing field, and let the people determine their own outcome. If you believe that most people are decent and good — peacemakers will resolve the problem quickly. No evil force that is a minority can exist long in an armed society — and if the evil force is a majority, send more ammo and try to distribute it more efficiently. I think this would work in Somalia as well — these people are oppressed and have no power. You can’t make any headway establishing change or developing cooperation given the asymmetry of force and rule of law that currently exists. If I’m reading my history right — the problems are created by about 5% of the population — not much higher than Western incarceration rates … and not much higher than the incidence of psychopathy.

Jim July 22, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I may be wrong, but I believe you are making an argument upon a mistaken premise.

In a tribal culture, the results of your gun distribution will be that the most blood thirsty warlords will win, with a continuing low level of violent static thereafter.

IOW, no meritocracy will develop, no individual property rights, no universal sense of justice. And therefore investment, quality, production, standards of living will remain very low.

All the aid in the world will have little affect on such a society. I hope I am not putting words in Dierdre McCloskey’s mouth if I say that they do not have the necessary bourgeois culture to advance.

SheetWise July 22, 2011 at 9:20 pm

“In a tribal culture, the results of your gun distribution will be that the most blood thirsty warlords will win, with a continuing low level of violent static thereafter.”

If what you propose is true — then it’s only because the weapons were surrendered, or the owners were too timid to draw them. In either case, they have chosen their own destiny.

vikingvista July 22, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Good point. If they are going to surrender anyway, giving everyone guns will have no effect on the outcome. Of course, I strongly suspect many, and it wouldn’t require most, would make use of their weapons to increase the cost of tyranny.

SheetWise July 23, 2011 at 3:45 am

Yes — it would increase the cost of tyranny — and it should increase the cost beyond any expected level of return. An armed populace is a lot more dangerous than an occupying army — and is reasoned to the degree they’ve developed a culture.

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:45 pm

I believe the founders were gun owners too!

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Here Hear!

Ron H July 23, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Why is there an unspoken assumption that the Somali people aren’t already armed?

I don’t think background checks or waiting periods are required, and there are no limits on magazine sizes as far as I know.

Seriously, as a staunch defender of the 2nd amendment, I think all airline passengers should be armed, and all so called “gun free” zones should be eliminated without delay.

SheetWise July 24, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I never feel as safe as when I’m in a room where most people are armed. Gun shows are very safe places. I posted this comment before the tragedy in Sweden, which apparently took place in a gun free zone.

vikingvista July 24, 2011 at 8:03 pm


SheetWise July 25, 2011 at 12:57 am

My bad. I’m Finn, what do I know.

muirgeo July 22, 2011 at 12:38 am

But the good news is that at lest Somalia has no central government agents holding guns to their heads. Government sucks!!!

Dan J July 22, 2011 at 1:03 am

What sucks is pediatricians who should be reading the JAMA and/or other medical journals to keep up on his obligations of being up-to-date on other docs discoveries or types of outbreaks, etc.,…..
Instead, the good doc is spending so much time on a subject matter in which he is consistently contradicted and repudiated but remains obstinate in the face of so much evidence.
Lord, I hope you do not act in the same manner with medicine.

Gil July 22, 2011 at 1:29 am

As long as government’s not in the way then everything’s going to be fine.

Dan J July 22, 2011 at 1:39 am

Should Somalia remain as some fallacious prototype of less govt/no federal govt, then it is equally fair to say that North Korea is the shining example of large govt.

muirgeo July 22, 2011 at 7:42 am

Yes and that is why I suggest a solution in between such extremes. Yours is the extreme position not mine. Besides you have little room to talk about excess government considering the foul rent seeking employer you sold your worthless soul to since you are unable to make a decent living on your own. Everything you write here is completly self defeating and hypocritical and meaningless. You and your life are meaningless… even less than meaningless.

Ken July 22, 2011 at 1:28 pm

“Yes and that is why I suggest a solution in between such extremes.”

You mean the solution that nearly everyone commenting on this site suggests. Almost no one suggests completely eliminating government at all levels.

“Yours is the extreme position not mine.”

Wrong. You think the US fed gov is too small. That is an extreme position.

The rest is standard ad hominem.


Dan J July 22, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Your fooled by your own assumptions and having been misinformed. I am not the person who works for a financial institution.
Love progressives for one thing, especially…….. When their arguments become fool hearty and contradicted, they resort to insults…… Every time. I do give you credit for driving down the path of calling out racism….. Gotta hand it to ya there.

Tis not extreme by any stretch to exclaim my independence of thought and action. Quite rational and intelligent. To be individualistic is universal.

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Extreme positions are always the right position- I belong on Twitter.

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Your midway solutions are the path to socialism!

PlayDumb July 22, 2011 at 5:21 am

Didn’t Amartya Sen win a Nobel prize based on the thesis that famines almost everywhere are not the result of lack of food but lack of good governance (I am para-phrasing, pls correct).
If i recall he showed that in some cases food was grown locally in adequate amounts, but was sold outside because locals lacked the money to buy it!

vikingvista July 22, 2011 at 4:27 pm

“lack of good governance”

Which is a way of admitting that governance is the problem, while not questioning the necessity of governance. There is a common assumption that any governance is preferable to no governance.

anthonyl July 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm

He misconstrues good governance for private property protection.

Grieve Chelwa July 22, 2011 at 5:31 am

Dear Don,

Would you happen to have any leads on any research refutting the hypothesis that “localised drought implies localised starvation”. I know you refer to the American South West in your letter but has there been any systematic study on a global level?


Grieve Chelwa July 22, 2011 at 5:32 am

Oh sorry Don. I think PlayDumb just answered my question. Thanks

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