Famines and knives

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

–          Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden

A July 20 editorial in the Vancouver Sun urged Canadians to give donations in support of victims of the ongoing famine in East Africa. In a concessionary tone, the editorial pointed out that Canadians “are… wary of appeals from a region where aid often appears to be poured into a bottomless pit and people seem no better off for it.”

It immediately went on to offer a response to the concession: “We must not let this weariness blind us to the human crisis that is now unfolding in a region that has known more than its share of misery. We must not let our disgust for leaders who create hardships for their own citizens or our attention to the pressing concerns of our daily lives distract us from the opportunity we now have to help.”

Apparently there’s a “bottomless pit” into which our thankless mercy is being poured “and people seem no better off for it.” We’ve been trying in earnest to help, but it’s all been for nought. The blame for this is handed to disgusting “leaders who create hardships for their own citizens”. I suppose that’s a bit of a step up from Kipling’s “sloth and heathen”. The sentiment, however, is much the same.

There is almost never an attempt by the media to honestly take history into account. Doing so, in this case as well as in many others, would show that the causes of suffering are not all contained within the countries or regions which experience the suffering. Much of the fault should be ascribed to outsiders.

There certainly are internal problems, including the incompetence and corruption of local leaders. However, as important as those problems may be, what we need to be concerned with most of all is our contribution to the creation of suffering. Our contribution is what we can work to amend.

It fact, it is apparent that the contribution of outsiders to the corruption of local leaders is quite significant (we’ll certainly find this to be the case for Somalia, as we review its post-colonial history below). In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Walter Rodney writes that

The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London and New York.[1]

Though perhaps Rodney would not have agreed, I would add Moscow to the list of city’s in which music is played, or at least such was the case historically. I would also be remiss, as a Canadian citizen, to not add Ottawa to the list.

Europe ain’t my rope to swing on / Can’t learn a thing from it[2]

Behold how the Infidel lays traps for you [Somalis] as you become less wary. The coins he dispenses so freely now will prove your undoing.

–          Sayiid Mohamed Abdille Hassan (The Mad Mullah), 1920[3]

The state of Somalia came into being on July 1, 1960 when British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland gained independence and combined to become one country. The newly-founded country found itself fettered by the chains of poverty and as the first independent years unfolded it also became increasingly politically unstable. The end of the decade saw a military coup take place in the country, through which Siyaad Barre came to power. This set the stage for Somalia to become part of successive neo-colonial arrangements, first in the service of one coldwar superpower and then the other.

Barre’s Somalia first came under the wing of the Soviet Union, obtaining arms and aid to shore up against neighbouring Ethiopia, a US ally. In 1974 the pro-US government in Ethiopia was overthrown. Following the subsequent conflict, a leftist government came to power in 1977. The US then ended its military and economic aid from Ethiopia.

By 1980, after a war between Somalia and Ethiopia over the disputed Ogaden region, the US and Soviet backing of the two countries had flipped – Somalia was now a US ally and Ethiopia was a Soviet ally. A refugee crisis and multiple rebel groups who stood up to challenge the rule of the Barre regime emerged from the ruins of the Ogaden war.

Give ‘em guns, step back, and watch ‘em kill each other[5]

In order to maintain military bases in Somalia that could monitor affairs in the [Persian] Gulf, the United States government provided $163.5 million in military technology and four times that much in economic aid during 1980-88. By the late 1980s, Somalia was receiving 20 percent of U.S. aid to Africa. . . . The value of arms alone imported by Somalia [from the West] during the two decades of Barre’s rule totaled nearly two billion dollars. . . . By the early 1980s, the Somali state was one of the most militarized in Africa. . . .

–          Catherine Besteman, Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery[6]

Barre became increasingly tyrannical throughout the ‘80s as opposition against him grew and rebels began to gain ground. The decade was witness to tens of thousands of Somali deaths at the hands of his regime, with hundreds of thousands fleeing across the Ethiopian border.

The ruthless US-backed dictator was finally ousted from power in early 1991. The next two years saw rival factions fight for control of the government. A famine gripped the south of the country in 1992 but began to subside with the help of rain by the end of the year. Around the same time conflict between rival factions had also began to subside.

Looking for an easy public relations boost for his country, US President George Bush decided to conduct a military intervention in Somalia which would assist the UN deliver food to the victims of the famine. Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it as a “paid political advertisement”.[7] A US-led UN Security Council-sanctioned task force (UNITAF) comprised of several countries, including Canada, was created and arrived in Somalia in December 1992.

The PR stunt didn’t go as planned. The presence of foreign troops exasperated the situation. The population quickly turned openly hostile against the task force as a result of cruel treatment received from the troops:

There were times when [U.S. troops] shot at everything that moved, took hostages, gunned their way through crowds of men and women, finished off any wounded who were showing signs of life. Many people died in their homes, their tin roofs ripped to shreds by high-velocity bullets and rockets. Accounts of the fighting frequently contain such statements as this: “One moment there was a crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured.” (Alex De Waal, New Left Review, “US War Crimes in Somalia”)[8]

Yves Engler details similarly disturbing conduct carried out by Canadian troops in Somalia:

A sixteen year old, Shidane Abukar Arone, was tortured to death while dozens of other members of the Airborne Regiment knew what was happening. As many as 80 soldiers heard Arone’s screams, which lasted for hours.[9]

Thousands of Somalis lost their lives as a result of the violence created by UNITAF. The operation was called off in March 1993 and a much smaller UN force was left behind in Somalia. Two years later, in March 1995, all UN forces pulled out of Somalia. The Security Council declared that “the people of Somalia bear the ultimate responsibility for achieving national reconciliation and restoring peace to Somalia.”[10]

Since then Somalia has been a country without a central government and remained rife with chaos. It periodically appears in the news. Always something tragic, always without proper context: child soldiers, US-backed Ethiopian intervention, Al Qaeda inspired Al Shabbab militants, pirates, and now famine.

Turn on the radio / Nah, fuck it, turn it off[11]

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made. They haven’t even begun to pull the knife out much less try and heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.

–          Malcolm X[4]

When important pieces of information – namely, information about crimes that we have committed and continue to commit – are absent in the news we consume, it has an effect on the public mind. The belief held by most of the citizens of the North, which underpins our foreign policy towards the South, is the following: We’re trying to help, though sometimes we may falter in carrying out this pursuit and/or they don’t know how to receive our help. That’s the same basis on which the British Empire, and every other tyranny of the kind, was justified. We need to wake up to reality. If we sincerely mean to help ease the suffering of others, we need to first move beyond the idea of charity and work to identify and remove our country’s contribution, and the contribution of our country’s allies, to the suffering. From there we can provide reparations, not aid, to make progress in repairing the damage we caused.


[1] Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, (Dar Es-Salaam: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications), 1973

[2] Rage Against the Machine, Take The Power Back

[3] Quoted in Michael Maren, The Road to Hell (New York: The Free Press), 1997

[5] Tupac Shakur, Changes

[6] Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (New York, The New Press), 2002, Chapter 5: footnote 82

[7] Ibid, Chapter 5: footnote 83

[8] Ibid, Chapter 5: footnote 85

[9] Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Vancouver: Fernwood Publishing), 2009, p. 198

[10] Michael Maren, The Road to Hell (New York: The Free Press), 1997, p. 287

[11] Rage Against the Machine, Vietnow

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3 responses to “Famines and knives

  • Arthur

    Thanks for bringing the history into light.

    Could you be more specific into the “knife removing”/”removing our country’s contribution” that needs to occur? And when you talk about reparations and not aid, is the main difference in attitude or in other aspects (enhanced study, increased $ amount, provision of services) ?

  • Umair

    Thanks for the questions, Arthur. This gives me the chance to make clarifications which I probably should have included in the post.

    “Knife removing” would involve stopping certain ongoing practices, which parallel past practices described in my post, on the part of Canada and the rest of the international community. These include:

    – Support for and involvement in the so-called War on Terror within and outside Somalia. The war is destroying lives and livelihoods, as well as antagonizing millions in the Muslim world and the South in general. The creation and increasing prominence of groups like Al-Shabaab can rightly be described as a resulting “blowback” of the war.

    – Diplomatic and economic support for the Somali Transitional Federal Government, which is a rabid abuser of human rights in the territory it controls; as well as support for the African Union peacekeeping mission, which is up to the same sort of thing.

    – Dumping of hazardous waste off the coast of Somalia.

    Ultimately, though, the conditions that allow one country to abuse another need to be removed. These are: vast differences in power (economic and military) between different countries and the absence of a powerful enough international body that disallows maltreatment of one country by another.

    As for reparations instead of aid, I mean the difference to be more than an attitude shift . Aid is given to poor countries in order to obtain influence over their political workings, help domestic interests capture markets, as well as for PR at home and abroad. Reparations would not be that. To make sure they are not that, the conditions which allow “aid” to be what it is have to be removed — though an attitude shift would partly help.

    An arrangment such as the following could be put in place: A multilateral international body determines the amount of reparations to be given by one country to another and passes a binding resolution to make it happen. Reparations are used self-determinedly with help from the international body.

    The particulars of the arrangement I’ve laid out are not what’s important. Rather, what I want to convey is the fact that there needs to be a radical change in the attitude and within the arrangment in which “aid” is given.

    My suggestions and outlook perhaps seem unpractical, especially when one is considering taking immediate action. Any immediate actions, however, should be informed by a long-term vision which incorporates awareness of the past and present, and has as its objective the desire to create transformative change. Not grounding our actions in such a vision often risks making our work useless at best, and harmful at worst.

  • Arthur

    Hey Umair, I thought this was a great response to my request for clarification. I understand your statement about the need for radical change in attitude and arrangement in which aid is given. I see that you believe the particulars aren’t important, but I feel it provides some starting points for people to contemplate e.g. multilateral international body to determine reparations, discontinuing support for wars and particular groups. These are things we might be able to vote for, or convince a politician to take the initiative on these ideas.

    Or maybe you believe it’s premature to act because not enough people are enlightened on these topics?

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