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How modern imperialism creates famine around the world

Countries like Yemen, Chad and South Sudan have been devastated by famine and starvation in recent years, with millions of people suffering despite a global surplus of food. But the problem is not a lack of resources - they are starving due to the effects of unending Western imperialism.

by Eric Draitser

Part 4 - South Sudan: New country, old story

When the nation of South Sudan was carved out of what had formerly been a unified Sudan by the United States and the “international community,” some argued that civil war was inevitable. Indeed, with simmering conflicts such as the war in Darfur and periodic clashes in Abyei Province, South Sudan seemed a likely candidate to become a failed state within a very short time. And that’s precisely what happened.

Today, the country faces mass starvation, and in some areas, famine. Though the United Nations recently announced that South Sudan is no longer facing famine, it also highlighted the fact that more than two million people there are on the brink of starvation, with many more suffering from malnutrition.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, at least six million people, or half the country’s population, will face extreme food shortages between June and July this year. FAO representative Serge Tissot concisely explained, “People are in a catastrophic situation.”

But why? What has created this catastrophe?

On the surface, the famine and food insecurity have been caused by a civil war which seems to be a straightforward power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. And indeed, it is. The war has led to political and economic disarray, with all the attendant problems ranging from forced conscription of children to the destruction of infrastructure and much worse.

However, as with all conflicts in Africa, the truth is far more complex and rooted in neo-colonial interests on the continent. In this case, South Sudan is merely the latest victim of the curse of oil – the sad reality that countries with oil resources are always going to be targets for the U.S.-NATO empire. This is doubly true in South Sudan’s case, considering the centrality of the Sudan region to China’s long-term ambitions both on the continent and globally.

Indeed, by 2011, when the United States and its allies ultimately divided the nation of Sudan in two, with oil resources having been incorporated into the new South Sudan, Sudan had become essential to China’s investment and economic development. In fact, Sudan accounted for 8 percent of China’s total oil imports (China being the recipient of a whopping 78 percent of total Sudanese exports). This makes it quite clear that any attempt to divide Sudan into two countries was a de facto attempt to deprive China of a principal trading partner.

And with the 2011 partition of Sudan and the creation of the independent nation of South Sudan, Washington and its allies believed they had dealt a serious blow to Beijing’s aspirations in Africa. But this was not to be, as Beijing moved quickly to establish important economic ties with the newly constituted South Sudanese government under President Kiir.

Since 2011, Beijing has entrenched itself as the dominant trading partner and economic benefactor behind South Sudan, with tens of billions invested, especially in the oil sector. And so, it should come as no surprise that South Sudan has been plunged into a civil war that has made it a very tricky proposition for the Chinese as they seek to expand their economic hegemony in east Africa.

Surely the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the misery of millions is a small price to pay for the profit margins of ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell. Surely Lockheed, Boeing, and Raytheon are a worthy trade-off for the lives of untold thousands of infants. Of course, outmaneuvering China is well worth watching an entire nation slide into the abyss. Such is the rationale of imperialism and neo-colonialism.

More than two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus articulated the true logic of British imperialism: the lives of the poor meant little in the context of the life of the British Empire; famine was just nature’s way of thinning the herd, so to speak. Malthus laid the foundation for the imperial logic that has guided the political and geopolitical considerations of the British and US Empires since. When he spoke of “premature death” visiting the human race, what he really meant was that this was good, this was natural. And who could possibly want to challenge nature?

Two hundred years later Mike Davis, in his classic work “Late Victorian Holocausts,” noted that rather than seeing the famines of the Late Victorian period of the British Empire as merely natural and benign phenomena, they should instead be viewed as powerful drivers of imperialism and a world economic system designed around British commercial interests – capitalism, in other words.

While climatic changes and other factors have played into those famines, just as they do today – climate change does remain a principal driver of famine throughout the Global South – it was imperialism that used those famines as business and investment opportunities.

Today, the famines and food insecurity we see around the world can be directly attributed to the same world system, the same sets of economic and political imperatives, the same lack of humanity. Because try as we may to pretend otherwise, we are no better than those who came before us.

So long as the Empire and its capitalist economic system continues its global hegemony, we will continue to see the skeletal faces and emaciated bodies of children whose only crime was being born in the wrong part of the world.

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