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Famine Is Back

For the first time in six years, there is famine in the world: a real, United Nations-declared famine, with more than 30 percent of the affected population suffering acute malnutrition and more than a thousand people dying of hunger each day. And there are three more countries where famine may be declared any day now.

As you would expect, all four current and impending famines are in war zones. As you might not expect, one of the afflicted countries is not in Africa. It is war-torn Yemen, the poorest Arab country, whose 22 million people depended on imports for 90 percent of their food. With most of Yemen in rebel hands and daily air raids, the food is no longer making it in.

But the other three places are indeed African: South Sudan, Somalia and north-eastern Nigeria. The official famine is in South Sudan, where, after three years of brutal civil war, 40 percent of the population, some 5 million people, are starting to starve.

As usual, there are other contributing factors. There has been a months-long drought in much of East Africa, and the worst-hit provinces of South Sudan tend to support the rebels and may therefore be suffering from an undeclared government food blockade. But it’s almost always Africa. Why?

There are poor people elsewhere, but apart from North Korea in 1996, every famine of the past 40 years has been in Africa. It’s usually linked to armed conflict, of course, and most of the world’s wars are in Africa, but that just pushes the argument back one step.

Why is Africa, a continent with only one-seventh of the world’s population, home to the great majority of its wars? Only the Arab world, a much smaller region, even begins to compete, and its wars, bad as they are, almost never cause famines. Africa is a global outlier, and there must be some common factor beyond mere politics that makes it the global capital
for wars and famines.

The big thing that distinguishes Africa from the rest of the planet (except, once again, the Arab world) is a rapidly growing population: the average fertility rate across the African continent is 4.6 children per woman.

That was about the average fertility rate of the whole human race in 1960, when the entire world’s population was exploding. But the global fertility rate has halved since then, while Africa’s has stayed much the same. If it remained at this level for the rest of the century, today’s one billion Africans would become seven billion, and half the human race would be African in 2100.

In fact the fertility rate is forecast to fall gradually in most African countries, although some countries – Niger, Mali and Uganda, for example – will continue to have higher birth rates. But the fertility rate is falling very slowly: the forecast is that by 2045 the average African woman will be having only three children – but anything above 2.2 children per woman means the population is still growing.

The forecast of the United Nations Population Division is that Africa’s population will almost quadruple by the end of the century, while most other countries stand still or even fall in population. That means there will be 3.6 billion Africans by 2100 – a third of the human race. It also means that war and famine may be their constant companions.

It’s not that Africa has already outgrown its food supply. There is probably enough good land in Africa to feed twice the present population (though not four times as many people). Global warming is likely to damage the productivity of African agriculture quite badly in the long run, but that’s not happening yet. So why is there a famine problem now?

It’s because for the past half-century Africa’s population has been growing as fast or faster than its economies. Most Africans therefore stay poor, and poor people, especially the rural poor, tend to have higher birth rates. And since they cannot afford to invest much in their farms, in their children’s education, or in anything else, the problems and the conflicts deepen and fester.

It’s almost forgotten now, but when most African countries got their independence from the European empires in the 1960s their citizens were significantly better off than those of most Asian countries. African countries had better communications; even their diets were better.

But Asia’s annual population growth rate was only two percent then and is down to one percent now, while Africa’s population growth rate was 2.2 percent then and is 2.5 percent now. So per capita incomes in Asia are now many times higher than in Africa.

Africa is having famines long before there is an actual shortage of food in the continent. It’s having wars that are essentially over the division of the spoils (like South Sudan) in economies where there is simply not enough wealth to go around. Unless it can somehow get its population growth under control, it will just go on getting worse.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 13 and 14. (“As usual…why?”; and “It’s…Africa”)

The Bad Thing About LAWS

One of my daughters once proposed that my t-shirt should read: “I don’t support war, but war supports me.” And it’s true, I suppose.

I write about lots of other things too, but I have been studying war, writing about wars, going to wars (but never fighting in one) for the whole of my adult life, partly because international relations are so heavily militarised, but also because for anybody who is interested in human behaviour, war is as fascinating as it is horrible.

So you might assume that I would leap into action, laptop in hand, when I learned that almost 3,000 “researchers, experts and entrepreneurs” have signed an open letter calling for a ban on developing artifical intelligence (AI) for “lethal autonomous weapons systems” (LAWS), or military robots for short. Instead, I yawned. Heavy artillery fire is much more terrifying than the Terminator.

The people who signed the letter included celebrities of the science and high-tech worlds like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, cosmologist Stephen Hawking, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, Demis Hassabis, chief executive of Google DeepMind and, of course, Noam Chomsky. They presented their letter in late July to the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, meeting this year in Buenos Aires.

They were quite clear about what worried them: “The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.”

“Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populations, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnc cleansing, etc.”

“Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilising nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity.”

Well, no, it wouldn’t be beneficial for humanity. Few arms races are. But are autonomous weapons really “the key question for humanity today”? Probably not.

We have a few other things on our plate that feel a lot more “key”, like climate change, nine civil wars in the Muslim parts of the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, southeastern Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and northeastern Nigeria) – and, of course, nuclear weapons.

The scientists and experts who signed the open letter were quite right to demand an international agreement banning further work on autonomous weapons, because we don’t really need yet another high-tech way to kill people. It’s not impossible that they might succeed, either, although it will be a lot harder than banning blinding laser weapons or cluster bombs.

But autonomous weapons of the sort currently under development are not going to change the world drastically. They are not “the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms,” as one military pundit breathlessly described them. They are just another nasty weapons system.

What drives the campaign is a conflation of two different ideas: weapons that kill people without a human being in the decision-making loop, and true AI. The latter certainly would change the world, as we would then have to share our world for good or ill with non-human intelligences – but almost all the people active in the field say that human-level AI is still a long way off in the future, if it is possible at all.

As for weapons that kill people without a human being choosing the victims, those we have in abundance already. From land mines to nuclear-tipped missiles, there are all sorts of weapons that kill people without discrimination in the arsenals of the world’s armed forces. We also have a wide variety of weapons that will kill specific individuals (guns, for example), and we already know how to “selectively kill a particular ethnic group,” too.

Combine autonomous weapons with true AI, and you get the Terminator, or indeed Skynet. Without that level of AI, all you get is another way of killing people that may, in certain circumstances, be more efficient than having another human being do the job. It’s not pretty, but it’s not very new either.

The thing about autonomous weapons that really appeals to the major military powers is that, like the current generation of remote-piloted drones, they can be used with impunity in poor countries. Moreover, like drones, they don’t put the lives of rich-country soldiers at risk. That’s a really good reason to oppose them – and if poor countries realise what they are in for, a good opportunity to organise a strong diplomatic coalition that works to ban them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 14. (“I write…horrible”; and “Combine…either”)

Displacement Activity

“What’s emerging is what we need, which is a comprehensive plan, going after the criminal gangs, going after the traffickers, going after the owners of the boats…and stabilising the countries from which these people are coming.” And when you have finished “stabilising” Syria, Somalia and Libya, overthrowing the Eritrean dictatorship, and ending poverty in West Africa, could you drop by and fix my plumbing? Oh, and Yemen. Fix Yemen too.

“These people” are the 1,300 refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean in the past two weeks, the 30,000 who will drown by the end of this year while trying to cross if nothing more is done – and of course, the estimated half million who will make it safely to Italy, Malta or Greece. The speaker was Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, but he was just one voice in the European Union choir

The EU’s leaders were meeting in emergency session because of a public outcry over all the refugees drowning on the crossing between Libya and Italy. These same leaders were responsible for most of the deaths, because last year they ended a very effective Italian Navy search-and-rescue operation and “replaced” it with an EU operation that had a third of the resources and was not supposed to operate more than 50 km off the Italian coast.

So now they had to fix it somehow, but they were all aware that their electorates at home still don’t want millions of migrants flooding into the EU, refugees or not. So they did what politicians do in circumstances like these. They came up with a displacement activity.

The problem, it turns out, is not refugees fleeing from places like war-torn Syria and Somalia, from cruel dictatorships like Eritrea, and from impoverished parts of West Africa. It is the evil traffickers – the new slave-traders, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called them – who lure the migrants away from their homes and charge them $2,000 per person for a place on a leaky boat to Europe.

Well, of course. Why would anybody want to leave a nice, safe place like Syria or Somalia unless they had been tricked into it by unscrupulous people-smugglers? So if we just break up those criminal gangs, maybe even go into Libyan territorial waters and destroy their boats before they leave the coast, then the demand for their services will vanish. Everybody will stay home, and the problem will go away.

Wait, sorry, we forgot. We have to “stabilise” their countries too. But THEN the problem really will go away, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

Are any of the 28 EU national leaders so naive that they believe this garbage? Of course not. So why are they saying it? Because they, like the people who voted for or against them, are torn between a distaste for seeing innocent people die, and a determination that millions of those innocent people cannot come and live in their countries.

So they want to hide what the policy is really about, and displace the blame for its bad effects (namely a lot of people drowning) on somebody else. Racist and hypocritical, you say, with a bit of Islamophobia thrown in. You’re right about the hypocrisy, but for a lot of Europeans the problem really is the numbers.

There are millions of people living within 1,500 km. of the European Union’s borders who would move there tomorrow if they had the chance, and that’s just the desperate ones who are trying to escape from wars, violent anarchy and extreme repression.

Count in all the others who would just like a chance to make a decent living in a place where corruption is relatively low and the law is usually enforced, and you are probably into tens of millions of potential migrants. Most of them are not desperate enough to risk the trans-Mediterranean route. Make it easier and safer, however, and lots of them would come too.

There are now close to one billion people living within 2,000 km. of the EU’s borders. Thanks to some of the world’s highest population growth rates, that will double in the next 30 years, which virtually guarantees that there will be more civil wars, more failed states and even more refugees. And that’s before you factor in the impact of climate change in the sub-tropics.

The EU’s own population is about 650 million, and it is not growing. So there is deep concern among EU leaders (though many of them don’t want to say it in public) that in ten or ten years they will be facing illegal migration so massive that it would fundamentally change the cultural identity of European countries.

They want to get the new, much tougher policy towards refugees in place now, before the refugees taking the sea route to Europe start coming in even greater numbers, but they don’t want to take responsibility for the deaths that will happen as a result. How to shift the blame? Try this. “It’s not our fault that all those poor people are dying at sea; it’s the fault of the evil people-smugglers.”
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“So…numbers”; and “Count…too”)

Mediterranean Cemetery

16 October 2013

Mediterranean Cemetery

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” said Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat. “As things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.”

He was talking about the part of the Mediterranean between the North African coast and the two islands that are the closest bits of the European Union: the Italian island of Lampedusa and his own country, Malta. In the past two weeks, almost as many migrants have died in that narrow stretch of water – only 120 km. (80 miles) separate the Tunisian coast from Lampedusa – as died along the US-Mexican border in all of last year.

On the southern US border they mostly die of thirst in the desert; in the Mediterranean they drown. The migrants pay the people smugglers in Libya or Tunisia thousands of dollars each to make the crossing in small, unseaworthy, grossly overcrowded boats, but the smugglers don’t go with them. They don’t want to get arrested at the end of the journey. They just hand over the keys to the migrants.

The refugees – more than half of the 32,000 who have reached Italy so far this year come from Syria, Somalia or Eritrea – have no experience at sea. The boats leak, they run out of fuel, they catch fire, and nobody knows what to do about it. In many cases, the boats just capsize when everybody rushes to the same side to call for help from a passing ship or aircraft.

Then they are in the water, and of course there are no life-jackets. Last week, when 359 Somali and Eritrean migrants drowned in a single boat, nobody even had a satellite phone to summon help. Most of the migrants can’t swim, and even those who can often drown before help arrives. Every sinking brings stories of parents who could swim, but had to choose which children to save.

“For us it’s intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead,” said Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy on Monday, announcing that his country is tripling its air and naval presence in the death zone. But as Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned, “It’s not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port.”

They don’t want the migrants to die, but they don’t want them to stay in Italy either. As in other European Union countries that are getting a lot of asylum-seekers, the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is fueling a powerful anti-immigrant backlash.

The numbers are not really all that huge. Frontex, the EU agency that deals with refugees, recorded only 272,208 asylum-seekers last year. That’s the biggest number since 2005, but it’s only a drop in the bucket among the EU’s 400 million people.

The problem is that they almost all head for a few relatively rich countries in western Europe – Britain, France, Germany and the Low Countries – or else end up stranded in Greece, Italy or Spain, the countries closest to where the refugees sail from. And for Italy, in particular, the problem has got a lot worse recently.

A joint EU police force managed to close off the previously favoured route for Middle Eastern refugees, the Greek-Turkish border, in 2010, but that just redirected the migrants to sea routes across the Mediterranean. The recent revolutions in Libya and Tunisia have crippled the ability of those countries to control their own coasts. And the wars in Syria and Somalia are generating ever larger numbers of desperate asylum-seekers.

The Italians do let most of the migrants stay – although Germany accused Italy last May of encouraging the refugees to move on by giving them 500 euros ($680) and a “Schengen” visa that allows them to travel to most other EU countries without passport checks. But the brutal truth is this: the safer the EU countries make the Mediterranean crossing, the more people will try to come.

Most of the migrants currently risking their lives in those little boats are genuine refugees, but behind them, in the vast sweep of countries from West Africa to Somalia and Iraq, there are several hundred million others who would leap at the chance of moving to Europe. The nationalists in those countries will indignantly deny that, but you only have to talk to ordinary people there to know that it is true.

Europeans, like most people, want to see themselves as generous and caring, but behind all the humanitarian talk there is the stark reality that the EU will never make it so easy and safe to get in that even a small fraction of that vast reservoir of would-be migrants actually tries to make the journey. European leaders who let that happen would be committing political suicide.

The least bad solution would be to encourage the emergence of stable governments in Tunisia and Libya that could stop the boats from leaving their shores, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, people will go on drowning in the Mediterranean, although hopefully in smaller numbers than the catastrophe of the last few weeks.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The numbers…seekers”)