By George Clooney and John Prendergast
Official, U.N.-declared famines are a rare phenomenon. The last one worldwide was six years ago, in Somalia. Famines are declared officially when people have already begun to starve to death. It is the diplomatic equivalent of a seven-alarm fire. That is where the youngest country in the world, South Sudan, finds itself today, as 100,000 face immediate starvation and another 1 million are on its brink.
The maxim is true that famine does not result from purely natural causes but is usually “man-made.” Such a description, however, avoids any real accountability for those who have caused the crisis. South Sudan’s famine would be more accurately described as “government-made.”
The most immediate cause lies in the tactics used by the South Sudan government and its principal rebel opponent in fighting the current civil war. Government and rebel forces attack civilian targets much more frequently than they attack each other. They target the means of survival of civilian populations deemed to be unsupportive. In particular, they raid cattle in areas where cows represent the inherited savings and means of commercial exchange. Massive cattle raids result in complete impoverishment of entire communities and unleash cycles of revenge attacks that poison relations between neighbors and entire ethnic groups. The government has also concentrated recent attacks on areas where agricultural production traditionally fed large parts of South Sudan, not only resulting in massive human displacement but also devastating local grain production, which leads to hyperinflation in food prices.