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Starving For Food, Thirsting For Freedom

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By Thor Halvorssen

When a natural disaster strikes, the world receives a "sudden call" that it must act immediately. Most recently, the floods in Pakistan revealed the dynamism of the international community. However, when a government erodes democracy and violates human rights to the point of creating a humanitarian crisis, the world is often silent.

Today in Darfur, the death toll continues to mount. An estimated 400,000 have perished since 2003 from violence, disease, malnutrition, and lack of clean water.

We know that this tragedy is not a product of natural disaster. These deaths result directly from the loathsome policies of Omar al-Bashir's government in Khartoum, not from an unforeseeable "act of God."

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Sudan, 2003

As this calamity unfolds, it must be acknowledged as the latest in a long line of man-made humanitarian crises. The Sudanese regime now, among other ghastly prescriptions, deprives Darfurians of food -- just as over the past century, tens of millions of people starved to death not because of ill luck but because of bad governance.

In what is a deadly irony, most of these starvation victims died under dictatorships that trumpeted the good they could do for their fellow citizens -- governments that promised to "serve the people."

It might seem ironic that a strong and controlling state apparatus could fail to meet its citizens' most basic need to eat. Yet these governments -- whether communist, fascist, or just plain autocratic -- shared a similar feature: they rejected individual rights and limited the ability of their citizens to provide for themselves by controlling their mobility, access to resources, property rights, freedom of information and their ability to associate with others in mutual cooperation. While promoting the idea that they could help the masses, authoritarians let the individual members of such masses suffer -- or even starve.

Democratic governments and NGOs must remember that humanitarian relief should help the starving, but it must also do more. It must help alter the very conditions that lead to famine in the first place.

To establish the link between autocratic government and devastating famine, one need only look at some of the deadliest mass starvations of the 20th century.

In the Soviet Union between 1921 and 1922, some 9 million people starved to death under Vladimir Lenin's government; in Soviet Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, as many as 10 million people starved to death in Stalin's Holodomor; in Axis-occupied Greece during the 1940's, 300,000 people starved to death under Nazi policy; in British-administered Bengal in 1943, some 3 million starved to death as a result of colonial rule; as many as 2 million died in Vietnam during World War II as a result of Japanese occupation; in communist China between 1958 and 1962, between 10 and 30 million people died during the famines caused by Mao's "Great Leap Forward;" in Cambodia beginning in 1979, 1.5 million starved following the failed policies of the Khmer Rouge; a military dictatorship in Ethiopia presided over a famine in 1984 that took the lives of more than 1 million; and an estimated 2 million starved to death during the 1990s in totalitarian North Korea.

All these regimes were dictatorships regardless of how they came to see themselves -- as people's revolutions, democratic revolutions, or enlightened occupiers. The economic and social development that they claimed to pursue should never have been used as justification for violating basic freedoms and the right to life. And in some instances, such as the Ethiopian famine, the West addressed this with well-meaning "We Are the World" songs and charity initiatives as if it were some kind of natural catastrophe as opposed to an utterly avertable, man-made tragedy that should have marshaled the world to pressure the Ethiopian despot.

The 20th century reveals that the only long-term sustainable deterrent to man-made humanitarian crises is the realization of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Preventative steps must be taken to avert man-made famine and it can start with development aid.

The Swedish government, one of the largest donors to the developing world, has been exemplary in reengineering its approach to foreign assistance. It balances immediate humanitarian concern with long-term solutions to provide better government.

As one Swedish government memo (available to the public) describes it, "The aims of Sweden's engagement in partner countries are to contribute to development and poverty reduction. The scope and direction of Swedish aid, however, depend on how democracy issues are handled by the partner country."

Gunilla Carlsson, Sweden's minister for development cooperation, states that "Sweden must be loyal to certain fundamental values and principles and to the individuals in the country concerned, though not necessarily to the partner country's government."

As a human rights campaigner, I am sensitive to the fact that many development professionals want to avoid politics altogether. However, the empirical mountain of dead bodies caused by autocratic political systems shows that this is ineffective. Craig Johnstone, the Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, made the following observation at the Oslo Freedom Forum 2009:

"Taking care of people and protecting people in totalitarian regimes is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. It's difficult because if you don't become an advocate with the governments on behalf of the people then you are a party to the human rights violation yourself."

Nevertheless, as Johnstone observed:

"If you push so hard that you are kicked out of the country, as happens to us from time to time in some of the countries we've talked about, you are forced to abandon the very people whose hope you are charged with maintaining. We have to find a balance."

When NGOs try to persuade repressive governments to improve their rights records it usually becomes a shame game portrayed as a "violation of sovereignty" by the tyrant in question. Governments are better equipped than NGOs to provide regimes with incentives to respect human rights, as with offshore carrots and sticks, they don't need to worry as much about getting "kicked out." However, few states actually use their leverage. A painful reminder of this was the widely publicized visit by U.S. Secretary of State Clinton to China last February. She made clear to her hosts and the press that economic matters and trade -- not human rights -- were at the forefront of the U.S agenda. Shamefully, this attitude has been replicated in more than a dozen trouble spots by the Obama administration.

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Young victims of Stalin's Holodomor - a government-created famine

In light of government hesitancy, NGO advocates can have an especially important role when it comes to development. They must pressure donor governments to link aid to human rights -- especially when such aid is all about political objectives such as in the case of Egypt and more than a dozen African countries. The Swedish government is taking a leadership role that should be emulated by all Western governments and praised by development NGOs.

Amartya Sen teaches that an open society with democracy and good governance is one where famine finds it nearly impossible to take root. In societies like Sudan where such values are not upheld, human health, especially an empty stomach, can't be sufficiently addressed.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.