Tuesday, 14 March 2017

City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note

City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence: Book Note

Last week (March 2017) I read Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (published in 2016 by Random House Canada).  Rawlence is a journalist and former researcher for Human Rights Watch. In this book, he focuses on nine (pseudonymous) people who live in the Dabaad refugee camp in eastern Kenya, close to the Somali border. About a half-million people live in the camp, which is in reality a huge city. Most residents are ethnic Somalis from Somalia, but others are refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia. Some, indeed, are Kenyans who live in the camp and register illegally as refugees in order to have access to free food. 

This doesn’t seem like a camp full of refugees in the usual sense, since many who live there cross back and forth to Somalia, the country they ostensibly fled. Maryam travels from Mogadishu to Dabaad to marry Guled, who has fled the terrorist Al-Shabaad group that had forcibly recruited him. Her mother comes with her, but later returns to Mogadishu and persuades Maryam to return there as well. They would rather live in a house with adequate food, even at the risk of being bombed, than live in a tent in Dabaad, reliant on rations that are often cut. In any event terrorists, presumably al-Shabaad, start attacking the camp itself, so one way or another, they face the threat of bombs. Meantime international aid personnel live in walled compounds.

Ben Rawlence
The camp is also are rife with what we might call corruption, but in practice is normal business. While the World Food Program (WFP) distributes rations on a strictly equitable basis, food is bought and sold. Even starving people sometimes sell their rations so that they can acquire enough funds to make a phone call home. Food destined for the camp is sold en route, and food distributed in the camp leaves it for Somalia. Some people amass fortunes while others starve.  The Kenyan police who are supposed to maintain order can be bribed and bought. An honest Kenyan police supervisor is quickly dismissed, perhaps because the corruption reaches to the very top of the Kenyan political structure. Some WFP food even ends up in the hands of Al-Shabaad, the terrorist Islamist group whom the Somalis are ostensible fleeing.
Dabaad refugee camp

One reason for the corruption is that refugees are not permitted to work in the camp or outside it, as scarce jobs are reserved for Kenyans. Expatriate personnel are, however, permitted to offer refugees “incentive jobs” where they can work and learn skills at a tenth or less than other people are paid for the same job. There is fierce competition for these incentive jobs, as even the tiny amounts the refugees can earn put them at a distinct advantage over those who simply languish in tents, waiting for food handouts.

Meantime the camp is rife with all the problems that any other city faces, including racism. Muna, a young Somali woman, falls in love with Monday, an older Sudanese man. They marry, but they cannot live in a Somali area of the camp because the Somalis as horrified that Muna has married a black man. They retreat to the Sudanese area where they are guarded night and day by Monday’s compatriots. When Muna gives birth, she has to be transferred to a hospital outside the camp because Somali nurses in the camp hospital have threatened to kill her child as soon as it is born.

Other Somali women and girls in the camp are still subject to the control of their male kin. The foreign aid workers offer numerous lessons on gender balance and other liberal norms of the Western world, but women who accept these norms are often considered to be outcasts. They are still expected to marry: relatives arrange their marriages to men who may be in the camp but may still be in Somalia. Dabaad camp is, in effect, merely an extension of Somalia itself.

Sadly, just as I finished reading this book the media started publicizing another famine in Northern Kenya, Somalia, and South Sudan. As usual, the WFP and other organizations began to appeal for funds.  After reading City of Thorns, I wondered briefly what the point was of donating money. Would my donation actual reach the people who were starving, or would it merely enrich a businessman in a refugee camp? Worse, would it end up in the hands of Al-Shabaad or one of the unbelievably cruel and cynical warlords now wreaking havoc in South Sudan?  If so, my donation might be used to buy weapons and kill the many people I would like to feed. 

Books like Lawrence’s run the risk of creating isolationists, people who wash their hands of conflicts in faraway places. What is the point of trying to help if so many people profit from the funds that we donate? I decided to make my usual financial contribution nevertheless, hoping that some of it might help to feed a few people somewhere.


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela

Malnutrition Confirmed in Venezuela

Recently my former research assistant on Venezuela, Antulio Rosales, forwarded me a report by Anabella Abadi in an English-language website called Caracas Chronicles. The report is called “Caritas Study finds Childhood Hunger Racing to Crisis Levels,” and it summarizes the finding of the Catholic organization, Caritas Venezuela, which surveyed children in several of the poorest regions of Venezuela. You can find Abadi’s article here.


The gist of this report is that in Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, childhood malnutrition in some of the poorest areas of the country has now reached levels of what is called GAM, global acute malnutrition. When ten per cent of kids are malnourished, a region is at the serious level; when fifteen per cent are malnourished, it’s at the critical level. In twenty-five of the poorest parishes that Caritas surveyed, GAM was at 8.9 per cent between October and December 2016. Many of these parishes are isolated, with poor access to public services and high rates of poverty.

I have been following Venezuela for several years, and have posted blogs on the situation there on several occasions. You can access them here:

I’ve also written an article in Human Rights Quarterly (volume 37, no.4, 2015, pp. 1024-45) on Venezuela, which you can access on-line or email me for a copy at hassmann@wlu.ca. And I’ve discussed Venezuela in my recent book, State Food Crimes (Cambridge University Press, 2016). 

At the time I sent my book to the press in October 2015, I had read one report about malnutrition and was worried about what might happen: now I know that it is quite widespread.

Nicolas Maduro
Conveniently, the government of Venezuela no longer releases statistics that could damage its international reputation. According to Abadi’s article, the last time the government released data on childhood malnutrition was in 2007, just at the time that food shortages started. UN data is out of date. And it’s even more worrisome that the Food and Agriculture Organization gave President Nicolás Maduro an award in 2013 for reducing malnutrition, when there was already plenty of evidence of food shortages. Maduro became President in 2013 after Hugo Chávez, the President whose policies started the food crisis, died. 


As Abadi’s article said, the problem is not the low price of oil (which is often reported as the cause of food shortages, at least on CBC radio). And it’s not because of weather events. It’s because of incompetence, corruption, and an evolving dictatorship. For over a decade now the government has controlled the price of food; these prices are so low that many food producers and distributors have gone out of business. The government has also expropriated productive ranches and farms. I personally know a Venezuelan refugee here in Canada whose family’s ranch was expropriated, and now nothing is produced on it at all.

Food is rationed with guards standing outside supermarkets; people have to show their ID to get in and can only shop on certain days of the week.  Sometimes they have to be willing to give biometric information as well. People line up for hours, sometimes for days, hoping to find food. There isn’t enough milk for babies. 

More and more people are moving to other countries to find food. There’s also a thriving smuggling industry where Venezuelans buy food at low prices in Venezuela itself, sell it across the border to Colombia where the price is raised, then other Venezuelans travel to Colombia to buy it back.

Corruption eats up enormous amounts of food, whose distribution is controlled by the military.  Exporters to Venezuela have to pay huge bribes; so do importers, truckers, buyers, local vendors, and everyone else in the supply chain. If you don’t pay the bribes, food is left to rot in plain sight of starving citizens. You can see a detailed article about this corruption here:


According to Abadi’s article, recently a high school student confronted President Maduro to complain that the lunch program at her school had been cancelled. In a show of supreme indifference, Maduro replied by asking her what she personally was doing to solve the food crisis, saying (according to Antulio’s translation) “You cannot just make a request, you have to mobilize, go to the streets so that your word is heard.”  Maduro’s comment is ironic, given that the government has become increasingly repressive, jailing and torturing political opponents.

One of the problems here is that the international community can do so little to help Venezuelans. There’s no international law that says a country’s rulers can’t mess up the economy if they want to. There’s no option of humanitarian intervention. Maduro and his clique don’t care at all about international human rights law. The best option to pressure them is through the Organization of American States and other Latin American organizations, but so far that hasn’t stopped or even modified the corruption around food distribution. 

Malnutrition in Venezuela is entirely avoidable. A brutal, callous, stupid and corrupt leader supported by equally awful advisors caused it and perpetuates it. I don’t know whether Maduro is personally making money from oil revenues and food rations, but a lot of other people are. At best, he is an ignorant thug.