Don’t ignore the devastating food crisis in the ASAL

People, and livestock are threatened by drought in Marsabit.

Food insecurity is a slow-burning national crisis. According to the National Drought Management Authority, more than 600,000 children are acutely malnourished.

Oxfam, the British charity, estimates that more than three million Kenyans are in urgent need of food relief.

Among those not in acute need of relief, soaring prices are forcing families to spend ever more of their income on food.

Under current trends, the number of people in need of food relief will only go up. How can this be? Why have we failed to enable our people meet one of the most basic of needs?

Economist Amartya Sen famously argued that democracies do not preside over mass famines.

His idea was that the electoral incentives to implement sound market and redistributive policies and a free press increase the cost of ignoring mass death due to famine.

Sen’s argument has been challenged over the years, especially as some democracies were shown to preside over major food crises and acute malnutrition that killed millions over many years.

While these were not technically famines, they nonetheless comprised examples of governments failing to be responsive to their populations’ food needs.

Kenya is a data point firmly in opposition to Sen’s claim. We are ostensibly an electoral democracy. So how can the government be overseeing a major food crisis in an election year? Why isn’t the food crisis dominating the news?

The simple and uncomfortable answer is that we are in the middle of a neglected food crisis because those affected have never been viewed by the mainstream as full members of the Kenyan political community.

Since independence, the government has neglected our people in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL). The same legacy endures after devolution. Governors in the ASAL region have internalised the habit of neglecting the same people who elected them.

To keep the problem on everyone’s mind, Kenyans of goodwill should keep shouting about the ongoing food crisis. Do not let the politicians hide the suffering of Kenyans.

The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University