All the Hungry People

How many millions more will die of hunger before the world wakes up to the politics of famine?


Blight, descending insects, immoderate weather, and soil exhaustion have held man at their mercy for nearly all of his history. By one estimate, there have been 750 major famines since the beginnings of civilization 6,000 years ago. At an average of every eight years, significant numbers of people have lost their lives to the most basic of the primeval "fates"—a failed harvest.

But one of the remarkable facts of modernity is that those kinds of environmental vagaries no longer need threaten life. Humans have developed a whole range of hybrid seeds, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and planting and tilling techniques to avoid catastrophic crop failure. They have learned to irrigate and rechannel water. They have discovered how to conserve soil and rotate crops. These things can be done in either an expensive, technology-intensive way or in a cheap, labor-intensive fashion; they are by no means the province merely of the rich nations. And, of course, for the worst cases, man has developed a whole series of storage, communication, and transport mechanisms so that when disaster does strike, outside relief can prevent starvation.

By these various means, most of the peoples of the world keep nutritional want well at bay. But in some places, efficient and dependable methods for producing and distributing food have not taken hold. In almost all cases today, the reason can be traced to one root: politics. The heavy hand of the state is prominent in nearly every famine of the last 50 years.

In some instances, despots employ starvation directly, as a decapitating weapon of political struggle. Other times, feeding the citizenry is subordinated to ideological ends. And in still other cases, bureaucratic centralism and foolish economic policies slowly strangle food production.

The worst starvation calamities of recent times combine all of these errors.Their results show how terrifyingly high the stakes can be:

Soviet Union
1930–33, 1015 million dead

1960–61, 2530 million dead

Nigeria (Biafra)
1967–69, 1 million dead

1975–1980, 2 million dead

1984–85, 1 million dead

The most recent cataclysm took place just three years ago, when more than a million Africans, most of them Ethiopians, perished in quiet misery on that continent's tortured grasslands. Yet despite an avalanche of attention and concern, most of the world failed to recognize the simplest truth about the Ethiopian famine: the deaths were needless, entirely avoidable. The famine was largely man-made.

And here's an even sadder fact: because we have failed to understand the political roots of contemporary hunger, because we are blind to the brutal patterns of recurrence, because we refuse to read aloud the signature on modern-day famine's calling card, it will continue to return. Even at this moment, hard on the heels of an outpouring of global outrage and assistance, Ethiopia is once again starving. At least 6 million Ethiopians are at risk. As appeals go out for 1.3 million tons of Western food donations, Americans are asking, How can this happen again so soon? The answer, missed by most of the famine reporting, lies very near the surface of recent Ethiopian history.

In June of 1974, a group of military officers known as the Dergue toppled Ethiopia's long-ruling Emperor Haile Selassie. Moderates were quickly purged from the regime, and following a climatic bloody gun battle at junta headquarters, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as ruler. In one of his first acts, he smothered the elderly emperor with a pillow.

Later, in 1975, Mengistu nationalized all land. At first, peasants gleefully seized plots from former landlords. But they soon learned that rather than being made owners, they were about to be collectivized. Peasant unrest resulted. This combined with student protests, a revival of several festering secessionist movements, and finally a Somali invasion. The new regime was soon teetering.

Then in 1977, following a U.S. rebuff, the Soviet Union delivered a billion dollars' worth of arms to Mengistu, allowing him to defeat the Somalis, check the various resistance groups, and consolidate his power. In the 10 years since, the Soviets have continued to pour weapons in at the rate of half a billion dollars' worth a year. With about 300,000 troops, 2,000 Soviet military advisors, and 7,000 Cuban fighters in the capital and along the Somali border, the Ethiopian military is now the largest and best equipped in black Africa.

In exchange for rescuing the Dergue, the Soviet Union and Cuba began pushing them for "greater Marxist orthodoxy" in their revolution. With the assistance of East German secret police, Mengistu launched a purge of opponents—beginning at the University of Addis Ababa, a hotbed of resistance. More than 3,500 students (out of 5,000) were killed. And, starting in 1979, the collectivization program, announced four years earlier, began to be enforced against recalcitrant peasants.

Most family farmers were forced into collectives where, in classically Stalinist fashion, almost everything produced belonged to the government. Large plantations that had been expropriated were run as state farms, with laborers paid a subsistence wage. Those few independent farmers who remained were allowed to sell their surplus crops only to the government, and at government-dictated prices that were below the cost of production. Private markets in food were closed down down, and as The Economist reported, Ethiopians were shot for "hoarding" (storing grain between harvests) and "profiteering" (shipping grain to places without food).

In the face of such measures, all incentives for rural dwellers to labor over their crops disappeared. Not surprisingly, production of teff, Ethiopia's main food grain, fell by 60 percent from 1975 to 1982. Cattle herds were slaughtered or sold across the borders. Reserves that might have forestalled famine evaporated. Three million Ethiopians—8 or 9 percent of the population—fled the country.

At the same time that socialist bungling was stultifying the agricultural economy, two other programs were creating mass hunger in a different way. The first is the so-called villagization scheme. In a typical operation, government troops arrive in an agricultural hamlet, arrest the traditional chiefs, requisition all private property (crops, livestock, tools), then force the locals to break down their huts. They are then force-marched, carrying pieces of their houses on their backs, to a new central location. There, they are required to set up new homes along with other groups who have been similarly gathered. The old sites are bulldozed.

In this way, over 4 million Oromos from eastern Ethiopia, for instance, have recently been uprooted. By the mid-1990s, the government hopes to have relocated nearly all of Ethiopia's 30 million rural dwellers. Very often, villagers resist the move, and they are met with violence, beatings, rapes, and death. The central location to which the peasants are transported often lacks adequate water supplies and is usually far removed from old fields. Much previously cultivated land is neglected and abandoned as a result.

Ethiopia's government has its reasons, of course, to compel these bizarre relocations. For one, it is the simplest way to enforce the farming collectivization that peasants resisted so fiercely so long as they had access to their own lands. Dr. Myles Harris, an Ethiopian relief worker, has reported that unless their parents have proper papers from the local village and "farmer's association," even dying children can be refused admission to hospitals. Centralized dwelling also allows for easier indoctrination and surveillance than when farmers are strung across the countryside. Each new "village" comes equipped with a guard tower and party banners, if little else.

More generally, the villagization program breaks down traditional sources of authority that compete with state power. For instance, in Emperor Selassie's day there were 20,000 separate parishes of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and all villages with 100 people or more had a church. These rural churches, and many mosques in Moslem areas, are being systematically razed. No replacements are allowed in the new villages.

A slightly different program with similar results is the resettlement campaign. During 1984 and 1985, 600,000 residents of the rebellious, guerrilla-harboring northern provinces were resettled to the south. The practice was uncovered when journalists who were in the country to report on the famine noticed people being jammed into trucks and stripped-down Antonov air transports and then whisked away.

This resettlement typically took place amid much brutality. A major investigation by the nonpolitical anthropological organization Cultural Survival found that 40 percent of the relocated tribesmen were beaten, 85 percent were permanently separated from a member of their immediate family, and 60 percent saw people die or be killed in the course of the resettlement. The Cultural Survival research corroborates a later estimate by the French relief organization Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) that fully 1 out of 6 of the Ethiopians who were forcibly relocated died in the process—a total of more than 100,000 individuals. For many Ethiopians, journalist Robert D. Kaplan and other witnesses report, the first experience of hunger did not come until after villagization or resettlement.

Following international outcry, the resettlement program was suspended in early 1986. But it apparently restarted last November, and the government has announced that it aims to resettle 300,000 persons this year. On February 8, at a food distribution center in Korem, government troops fired on thousands of unarmed peasants who were in the process of being resettled. Twenty of the resisters were killed, and scores wounded.

This incident illustrates one of the dilemmas of current famine relief programs. Initially, the Dergue resisted Western efforts to establish food stations in the northern, rebel-controlled provinces, even though they were among Ethiopia's hungriest areas. Indeed, as Kaplan, who has written extensively on the famine, reports: "For years Soviet MiG fighter jets have taken off from government bases and bombed anything that moved in guerrilla areas, including food convoys."

When the United States began channelling aid to the northern provinces across the Sudanese border, however, Mengistu changed tactics. In 1985, he agreed to cooperate with the Red Cross and other relief groups to establish food depots in northern garrison towns. The effect, he realized, would be to lure people from the resistance-dominated countryside to central camps, where they could be registered and controlled.

Correspondent Jonathan Tucker has written in The Nation that "since all able-bodied young men from the rebel-held areas are considered potential guerrilla recruits, they have been conscripted into the Ethiopian Army or forcibly resettled in distant parts of the country." In other words, food aid is being used as bait for the regime's resettlement trap.

Tucker quotes a Western relief worker in Ethiopia who states that "the program is admittedly saving some lives, but by contributing to conscription and resettlement, it's also causing additional casualties. In a sense, the program offers logistical backup to Ethiopia's military campaigns."

Apparently because they have come to similar conclusions, rebel groups last fall began attacking food convoys headed north, destroying hundreds of tons of grain in several cases, to Western outcry. The Eritrean and Tigre People's Liberation Fronts (both of which are themselves dubious Marxist-controlled groups, like most of Ethiopia's resistance movements) have claimed that food convoys are often used as a screen for the transportation of war materiel. They have declared that the government must rescind its resettlement policy before they will once again guarantee the safety of food convoys on rebel territory.

Mengistu claims the villagization and resettlement programs are merely responses to famine, a way to relieve human pressure in the dry districts. But most observers agree their primary aims are political—to consolidate central government control, enforce collectivization, and deprive rebels of popular support. The relocation campaigns "are ways of dominating and regimenting society, putting people in one place and controlling them," says Dawit Wolde Giorgis, Ethiopian commissioner for relief and rehabilitation until he defected to the West two years ago. In the process, they have become a primary cause of Ethiopian starvation.

The 1984–85 famine was clearly manipulated—some investigators even say engineered—by Mengistu as an instrument of genocide. Even through the height of the dying period, the army and air force were destroying granaries and farms, commandeering relief vehicles, and seizing Western grain shipments. At least half of the 1984–85 victims resided in areas controlled by either Eritrean or Tigrean guerrillas. Many of the other victims were economically independent peasants whom Mengistu, echoing Stalin, bitterly denounced as kulaks. In the early stages of the famine, before it was "discovered" by BBC television, Mengistu not only failed to get help, he actually concealed the problem from relief agencies.

The primitive Stalinism that caused the Ethiopian famine was a macabre throwback to the original Soviet model. In 1929 the Bolshevik Revolution was little more than a decade old and Josef Stalin was still solidifying his control of the world's first—at that time, only—Communist state. Most of the peasant farmers who made up the bulk of the Soviet populace had until then been able to resist major changes in the rhythm of their daily lives. Many of the traditional patterns of tillage and husbandry, worship in the village church, and communal and social life continued as they had for generations.

But late that year, Stalin ordered the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Tens of millions of small landholders were dispossessed of their plots and forced back into communal servitude for the first time since the great Serf Emancipation of 1861. Only this time they were indentured to the Communist Party rather than a landlord, and this time they were organized for political, not economic, purposes. All tools, farm animals, and even personal food stocks were seized, and all future agricultural production was declared property of the state. Naturally, food output collapsed.

Seeing an opportunity, Stalin combined the collectivization of agriculture with a campaign to liquidate "enemies of the revolution." These were defined to include the more prosperous peasants (kulaks) as well as members of certain other groups that Stalin found threatening—particularly the troublesome Ukrainians, the anti-Soviet Cossacks of the Northern Caucasus, and the Kazakh nomads. The result was a violent disruption of rural life throughout the Soviet Union, the destruction of agriculture in what had been Europe's breadbasket, and the death—in total absence of any natural disaster—of 10 to 15 million people, mostly by famine and forced labor.

Authorities carried out a vigorous campaign of grain confiscation even at the height of the famine. "Bread Procurement Commissions" probed barnyards and thatched roofs with thin sticks, searching for and seizing any private grain stores. The starving were bodily prevented from leaving the famine zones and were transported back if they were discovered in cities or in adjoining (nonstarving) provinces. News of the famine was suppressed, and when it trickled out nonetheless, offers of food aid from foreign nations were refused by Soviet leaders.

The famine was one part state pogrom, one part a failure to understand economic incentives, and one part a product of central-planning idiocy (the entire staff of the state meteorological office was arrested and charged with false weather forecasts at one point). In all cases, however, the direct responsibility of the Communist government is clear.

If there was a lesson in the Soviets' collectivization famine, it was lost on their socialist brothers in China. One year after gaining power in 1949, China's Communist rulers confiscated all land from anyone who owned five acres or more and distributed it among poorer farmers. Between 16 million and 28 million landowners are believed to have been slaughtered in the process.

The confiscations were barely completed when a new program was unveiled. Lands continued to be privately owned, but they were grouped into agricultural cooperatives. Ten million existed by 1954. At the end of 1956 these were further centralized into 700,000 collective farms, containing almost all agricultural families.

Over the next two years, the remaining private ownership of land was ended, and when Mao's Great Leap Forward began in 1958, the 700,000 collective farms were grouped into 25,000 communes. Farmers became simple wage earners. Not only all work but also eating, raising children, and other private functions were made communal. Social control by the central government was virtually complete. Personal incentives for food production disappeared.

At the end of the 1950s, China's annual grain production had totaled 270 million metric tons. In 1960, one year after the Great Leap, the figure is estimated to have fallen to 150 million tons. It did not exceed that level for a decade and did not exceed pre-collectivization levels until very recently. As one might expect, there was catastrophic famine in China during 1960–61. Based on census data, it is now calculated that an incredible 25–30 million people died of government-inflicted hunger in a two or three-year period.

The similarities of the Great Leap Forward disaster and Stalin's collectivization famine are manifold. At root, both were caused by a determination to subordinate even life-sustaining production to political goals. While insecure cynicism animated the Soviets, the Chinese were driven by revolutionary utopianism. The results, however, were every bit as deadly. And the damage was tragically long-lasting. Even through the 1970s, famine remained a common part of life in much of rural China, despite official and academic propaganda to the contrary. (See Steven W. Mosher, Journey to the Forbidden China.)

Not until the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early '80s—where most peasant households were given a small plot of private land, some choice about what to grow, and the partial right to sell products in free markets—did Chinese farming begin to recover. From 1978 (when the reforms began) to 1984, Chinese grain production rose 34 percent, to a record 405 million tons. China actually became a small grain exporter.

But grain output has levelled off and today China once again faces serious shortages of cereals, as well as other foodstuffs. Apparently, the modest liberalizations undertaken up to now have imparted as much kick as they can. Part of the problem is that grain, whose price the government strictly controls to placate urban consumers, is now unprofitable compared to vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants, which can be sold on free markets. China's farmers have developed a powerful taste for entrepreneurial incentives, and it is unlikely that food production can be raised significantly again unless China's leaders are willing to risk more market-based reforms.

News of the 1960–61 famine was suppressed so completely that only recently did the world learn of its existence. And not until the last few years, when outside observers gained access to new demographic data, did the catastrophic scale of the loss become clear. That 25 million famine deaths could, first, occur, and then be kept secret from the rest of the world, has important political implications, as Indian scholar Amartya Sen observed in The New York Review of Books:

"In India even a fraction of that death toll would have immediately caused a storm in the newspapers and a turmoil in the Indian parliament, and the ruling government would almost certainly have had to resign. Any government keen on staying in power would have had to avoid such starvation deaths from taking place at any cost. Thus the question of food and starvation is not unrelated to the issue of liberties, of newspapers, and ultimately, of democracy."

A look at the worldwide famines since 1960–61 bears out the accuracy of this observation. In 1968 famine was induced in Nigeria as part of the Biafran war. The (non-Communist) Nigerian military government destroyed and poisoned food supplies, blocked relief, and wielded starvation as a weapon. The Biafran rebel government also interfered with aid efforts. A political famine was created, and up to a million perished.

Less than a decade later, after Cambodia's fall in 1975, Pol Pot's doctrinaire Communists inaugurated a homicidal regimen of "re-education" and "mobilization" throughout the nation. Residents of Phnom Penh and other cities were forcibly relocated to undeveloped parts of the countryside. The predictable pattern of confiscations, collectivizations, and purges wracked the agricultural economy. Starvation was soon rampant. Two million of Cambodia's eight million citizens died in subsequent months, many of starvation.

Not long afterward came Afghanistan. Since the Soviet invasion, Soviet and Afghan government troops have waged war not merely on the mujaheddin guerrillas but, as a Helsinki Watch report puts it, "on every element of the food production system." They have poisoned wells and destroyed irrigation systems. They have cut down fruit trees and strafed cattle and domestic animals. Grain has been burned in fields and storage facilities with phosphorous bombs. Gardens and terraces are bomb-cratered and mined.

Wheat berries brought in from Pakistan have at times been the only nourishment for many Afghans, and British studies suggest 20 percent of all children in northern provinces suffer from serious malnutrition. Of course, the government forbids the International Red Cross from distributing aid in the countryside. Though no official death totals are available, the London-based group Afghan Aid estimates that half a million or more Afghans have been threatened with starvation at various times in recent years. Those who have avoided such a fate did so primarily by leaving the country, surrendering to the process that has made one out of every two refugees in the world today an Afghan.

In Mozambique—a country blessed with rich agricultural lands and large mineral and energy deposits but cursed with a hapless government—famine killed 100,000 people in the early 1980s. Six million more currently face starvation, according to the United Nations.

From the time the Portuguese left in 1974 until the early 1980s, the Mozambican government controlled food prices and directed all agricultural investment to large state farms. Peasant and private commercial farmers had their supplies of seed, tools, fertilizer, and animal feed cut off. Today, idle tractors, trucks, and pumps litter the countryside, immobilized by parts and fuel shortages. Hoes, axes, seeds, and fertilizer are difficult to find. "People want to produce, but they need tools," says a CARE worker.

The government has brought such suffering to the country that a resistance movement has been able to put 10,000 guerrillas in the field and retain a measure of public sympathy, despite its own lack of ideological coherence and a record of frequent brutality, including destruction of food convoys.

Having failed to identify even some of the most egregious famines as the cruel and avoidable events they are, the world, not surprisingly, is often blind to the more subtle forms of political hunger. Most of the nations of Africa, and some other parts of the Third World as well, are currently in the grip of ideological forces which, while less nefarious than those operating in China or Ethiopia or the Soviet Union, also have deadly effects.

In many developing countries, governments have so stultified their rural economies that they are unable to produce anything efficiently. This is often a bipartite process. On the one hand, government functions such as the maintenance of roads and infrastructure and the disbursement of technical assistance are neglected. And on the other, a whole series of taxes, tariffs, marketing orders, subsidies, and regulations distort prices and prevent markets from operating effectively. The result is slow-motion misery.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the problem is to contrast the experiences of Kenya—one of Africa's rare success stories—with those of Tanzania—a quintessential failure. The two nations have a common border and are climatically and topographically similar, with Tanzania enjoying greater resources. Kenya and Tanzania share several common ethnic populations, and their precolonial and colonial histories were closely intertwined.

But upon independence, Kenya and Tanzania took widely divergent political paths. Under Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya explicitly rejected large-scale nationalization and confiscation of private property. The national slogan became "Harambee" ("self-help"), and private ownership and industry were strongly encouraged. Individual enterprise was considered each citizen's responsibility and the best way to eliminate poverty. Kenya blundered into some of the destructive policies common in newly independent Africa—for instance, persecution and expulsion of the Asian immigrants who are Africa's leading agents of modernization. But the overall economic program was liberal and strongly market-oriented.

In Tanzania, on the other hand, Julius Nyerere became a leading advocate of full African socialism. Banks and industry were nationalized, and compulsory government service was introduced. Nyerere's politico-economic philosophy was based on what he called Ujamaa (Familyhood) Socialism—Tanzania would be transformed from a nation of individual peasant producers to a society of small-scale communalists. Here we have a classic shibboleth of political leftists and utopian purifiers. To quote a European proponent: "It [has] not been understood that the reform of farming should begin with the reform of man."

Nyerere was no tyrant, but his socialism led him into a giant villagization scheme, forerunner to the Ethiopian version, that resulted in forced relocation of over 90 percent of the rural population to new central hamlets. Unlike his Ethiopian counterparts, Nyerere seems to have been motivated less by security considerations than by the naive belief that pushing people into large central facilities would make it easier for them to act collectively and speed the arrival of clinics, schools, new wells, and other artifacts of modernism.

In practice, the Ujamaa collectives were a complete flop. The year after they were introduced, Tanzania had to import almost a million tons of grain to stave off famine. Communal farming soon had to be abandoned altogether, and private plots once again allowed, even required. But the damage was done. Villagization had destroyed old physical facilities and social networks without adequately replacing them. It had destroyed the security of private ownership. It had separated farmers from their land. The result was misery, impoverishment, hunger, and death.

The keys to agricultural production, like all production, are structure and incentives. In Kenya, the fertilizer, seed, and farm equipment businesses are all private. The supply of chemicals to farmers is handled partly privately, partly by the government. In Tanzania, the government controls all four critical agricultural inputs—and much less efficiently. In Kenya, Western investment and expertise have been welcomed. In Tanzania, foreign capital was nationalized. In Kenya, as in nearly all of Africa, the government buys up and markets most crops, but it pays farmers a world-market-based price. In Tanzania, prices are set politically, and they have been absurdly low.

Starting from the common, middle ground of tribal ownership, Kenya privatized landholding, Tanzania collectivized it. Kenya kept its currency exchange rates flexible and became an agricultural export powerhouse. Tanzania controlled its currency at high levels to make imports cheap and in the process destroyed its export industries. To support large public expenditures (three-fourths of Tanzania's salaried labor force is employed by the government), Tanzania placed very heavy taxes on farmers and other producers.

Because of its sensible free economy, Kenya is basically self-sufficient in food. When extended drought arrived in the early 1980s, it was much better prepared than Tanzania or most other African states: despite the terrible absence of rain, no deaths due to starvation were recorded in Kenya.

Other parts of the world have done better than Africa. Asian developing nations in particular latched onto Green Revolution techniques with a vengeance and have dramatically increased agricultural yields. India—not long ago considered hopeless, doomed by resource and population factors to rely forever on outside food supplies—is now a food exporter. The grassroots Indian economy is quite free and entrepreneurial; the government operates programs to bring farmers new technology and capital and assist them in setting up markets.

So there is hope, where destructive state meddling can be kept to a minimum. In just the last couple of years, several of the worst offenders, including Tanzania, Mozambique, and recently Ethiopia have either promised or begun market-oriented reforms. Under new president Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the Tanzanians have reduced price controls and strictures on private traders and devalued their currency to encourage agricultural exports. The Mozambicans have downgraded state farms. Several other African nations have acknowledged their almost universal error in neglecting farming (the continent's major "industry") in favor of showy factory and urban projects.

Aside from the desperate economic straits these countries faced, new promarket pressures from the World Bank and Western governments have been a catalyst for reform. Belatedly, the West is realizing that the only sensible use for its aid (outside of emergencies where the threat to life demands quick action) is as a carrot, or a stick, to induce structural change. Too often in recent decades, easy Western aid to developing countries has merely cemented the existing government in place and underwritten the continuation of anti-economic policies.

Unfortunately, that is what happened in Ethiopia, where more than $2 billion in official aid poured in over a two-year period, the largest portion from the U.S. government. What was most infuriating was the way it was necessary to "beg from the hangman the right to come to the help of the victims," as French political writer Bernard-Henri Levy put it. Mengistu was reportedly willing to let several million people die rather than capitulate on points of principle, so the Red Cross, the U.S. government, and other relief groups had to tiptoe about to avoid offending the Dergue. In the process, they became tacit accomplices in the regime's brutality. Food shipments were reportedly taxed at the rate of $50 a ton to finance the army, and grain was diverted directly to the soldiers as pay. The resettlement and villagization schemes were financed with donated funds and supplies.

The existence of world hunger evokes in many Americans and Europeans not only great sympathy but also a feeling of guilt. As the rich are wont to do, we sometimes try to "buy" ourselves out of this guilt by showering the poor with large amounts of unconditioned financial assistance. From 1970 to the early 1980s, official Western aid to sub-Saharan Africa increased by an average of 5 percent a year in real terms. In some countries, aid per person amounts to a third or more of income per capita, giving new meaning to the term dependency. If these nations got into trouble over the last decade and a half, it was for want, not of outside assistance, but of a sensible set of economic rules.

If we wish to help the world's poor, we must keep pushing their governmental masters to allow them more economic liberty. Even small pro-market reforms have already paid big dividends in several hungry countries, such as China. But the measures taken so far have mostly been very limited. No nation has dismantled its government monopoly on agricultural marketing. None has fully decontrolled prices, currencies, or trade restrictions. Few have been very congenial to the small family farmers who are the developing world's potential economic saviors. All retain bloated and intrusive government sectors.

Yet genuine interest in economic freedom is beginning to get a toehold in the Third World. During his 1986 visit to Washington, I asked Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the UNITA guerrilla movement fighting to rid Angola of Soviet and Cuban domination, what he would do in a free Angola to avoid repeating the disastrous economic errors of so many of his African neighbors: The government's role, he answered, is to build roads and create a marketplace, help with technical know-how and investment assistance, and then step back. Only individuals, and individual incentives, Savimbi stated, can create wealth: "When you leave people to work their own farms…they have an incentive to produce—Then I will get something for myself.' By getting something for himself, he will help his village…his district…his province…his country."

This answer, while commonsensical to Western ears, is dramatically iconoclastic coming from an African leader. If Savimbi's message (and the economic freedom and political democracy that alone can make it happen) eventually takes hold outside the safe sanctuary of American meeting rooms, it could provide a genuine alternative to the two decades of centralization that have strangled Africa's once-mighty productive capabilities.

The alternative is disaster. Ethiopia was once considered a potential granary for Africa. During Selassie's reign, the nation was an agricultural exporter, small farmers prospered, large plantations growing food and cash crops sprang up, an extensive network of private traders and investors took root. But all that was thrown away. And when the latest of Africa's regularly recurring droughts arrived, the destructive policies that were the replacement bore bitter fruit.

Outside observers might have anticipated that, given the recent history of mass starvations. Yet much of the world seems to have fatuously accepted the official claim that the famine and the one million deaths were, as Ethiopia's ambassador to the United Nations puts it, "adversities caused by environmental factors." This stems from deeply rooted contemporary belief that world hunger is primarily a product of natural failures: too little rain, too many people, mysterious "desertification," bad soil, bad luck.

Yet it took willful acts of men to turn acts of nature into calamity. Absent a larger, overriding political breakdown, environmental factors do not now cause people to suffer and die from malnutrition. Zimbabwe, for instance, suffered through the same dry spell but experienced few famine deaths, on account of its strong farm economy based on private ownership. Likewise, India is today in the midst of its worst drought in decades, but few will starve because the country has a regular food surplus, a prosperous network of private farmers and traders, and a good government-assisted distribution system.

Ed Hullander of the U.S. Agency for International Development put the Ethiopian case directly in 1985: "Fifteen years ago when I was in those high plains [in Ethiopia], I saw corn that was the envy of Iowa. You don't see that today. It was the policies that stopped agricultural production, stopped the availability of food per capita, that were the major precipitants of this famine."

Today (and it has been true for most of this century), famine deaths are political, not natural, phenomena. And it is political change that will end and prevent them.

Karl Zinsmeister is a Washington-based writer and consultant and an adjunct research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.