How democracies are helping the world end famine.


At this point, I feel like we’ve been electing the next president for 17 years. I know I’m not the only one.

Between the 24/7 news cycle, the constant speculation, the “Bachelor”-style dwindling of like 903 candidates down to two … it’s been a real drag.

Never thought I’d consider these the “good old days.” Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images.

Our democratic process is long, exhausting, and often discouraging. Especially when the only comic relief we have ends up at the front of the ticket, and we’re left wondering if the whole thing is either broken or possibly working way too well.

If you’re feeling like I am — worn down and beaten up — you might need a reminder as to why the process of democracy, as tiring as the actual election cycle can be to live through, is a pretty great thing for the world.

So here it is:

Did you know that from 1983 to 1985, Ethiopia suffered one of the worst famines in their country’s history?

The African nation was hit with a cyclical drought, which gave way to widespread hunger due to its dependence on rain-fed agriculture. The famine hit hard and spread fast, ultimately killing over 400,000 people.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

But some have argued that the drought alone wasn’t what led to such widespread mortality rates. It was political unrest.

Ethiopia’s autocratic leadership at best ignored the problem and at worst tried to impose customs duties on the aid shipments trying to help ease the symptoms of the drought.

Alex de Waal, author of “Evil Days: 30 Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia,” argued that the majority of deaths in Ethiopia’s famine “can be attributed to human rights abuses that caused the famine to come earlier, strike harder, and extend further than would otherwise have been the case.”

Now, Ethiopia is getting ready to face another drought. But this time, things aren’t looking nearly as bad. Why?

De Waal described a nation much better equipped to handle the dry spell after a recent visit to Ethiopia in The New York Times:

“As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.”

What’s changed since the drought in the 1980s? To put it simply, Ethiopia’s authoritarian leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, is no longer in power. He was overthrown in 1991, marking the end of a decadeslong civil war.

Photo by Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images.

“The Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991,” says de Waal. “Under the [new] government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former guerrilla turned advocate of rapid economic growth, Ethiopia enjoyed internal peace for the first time in a generation.”

That internal peace is what has allowed Ethiopia to lessen the effect of the drought on its citizens this time around because the country is able to import things like wheat and water and medical care to remote villages.

Current Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Photo by Stan Honda-Pool/Getty Images.

The situation in Ethiopia certainly isn’t perfect, and with the recent election of Hailemariam Desalegn with 100% of seats in parliament, some have argued that Ethiopia isn’t quite a democracy yet. Even President Barack Obama got some flak for calling it one. This also isn’t to say that people in Ethiopia aren’t going hungry anymore. Millions there are still chronically malnourished.

However, Ethiopia’s political situation is demonstrably better now than it was in the ’80s. The civil war has ended, and in 1995, a constitution was put in place — both things that will help them avoid another devastatingly high death toll as the result of a famine.

Beyond Ethiopia, the number of democracies worldwide has actually gone up in the past few decades. Way up.

According to Our World in Data, “The majority of the world’s countries are now governed by democratic regimes,” which they define as “systems with citizen political participation, constraints on the power of the executive, and a guarantee of civil liberties.”

Chart by Max Roser/Our World in Data.

As the number of democracies has increased, rates of world hunger have gone down. Way down.

The International Food Policy Research Institute reported in its Global Hunger Index that just eight countries in 2015 had hunger levels that were considered “alarming.” Compared with 1990, when 25 countries had “alarming” hunger levels and 17 more were deemed “extremely alarming,” you can see just how much progress has been made.

The connection between prevailing democracy and declining rates hunger has been made by many, including Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and our old friend de Waal, who wrote:

“After countries have passed a certain threshold of prosperity and development, peace, political liberalization and greater government accountability are the best safeguards against famine. There is no record of people dying of famine in a democracy.”

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

So feel free to keep rolling your eyes at the lawless circus we’re calling the 2016 presidential race. But while you do, remember just how powerful democracy can be.

It can give a voice to the voiceless. It can provide peace in place of unrest, it can help bring food to the hungry, and it can help curb the devastation when tragedy and natural disasters strike.

The world isn’t perfect. America definitely isn’t perfect. Democracy isn’t perfect either.

Democracy doesn’t come easy. It’s hard work to elect the right people and get the right plans in place and the right voices heard, and it too often feels like a long and thankless fight. But democracy is a privilege — one that shouldn’t be taken for granted. That fight is worth it because when democracy works, even when it works imperfectly, it really works.


Thumbnail photo on the left by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and on the right by Stan Honda-Pool/Getty Images.

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