My family is descended from the Catholic Irish diaspora, and when I was a boy in Newfoundland we would sometimes play the game of ‘potatoes and point’ at the dinner table. We’d point at the potatoes (there was always a bowl of boiled potatoes with the main meal) and say “may I have a slice of beef” or “I’ll have some more carrots, please.”

It was a distant echo of the Irish famine of 1845-1852 that halved the country’s population (a million dead, three million fled). Potato blight killed the potatoes, but it was politics – an ideologically driven British government that refused to interfere in the working of the free market by giving the starving Irish free food – that killed the people.

In order for a mere political decision to topple a country into famine, it has to be food-stressed already. But politics provides the final push: that’s what is really killing people today in Sudan, Gaza and Haiti.

The ‘politics’ in question is generally a war of some sort – and in most cases, the starvation is a by-product of the war, not even the main event.

That is certainly the case in Sudan, the biggest of the current famines. According to the UN's World Food Programme, nearly 18 million people in Sudan are facing ‘acute food insecurity’ as a result of the civil war between two parts of the army that broke out in April 2023.

However, the hunger is mostly in the areas where there is severe fighting (Khartoum and the south-west) It is accompanied by an attempted genocide of the ‘African’ (i.e. black) ethnic groups in the south-west by the ‘Arabs’ who make up most of the Rapid Reaction Forces (one of the rival military groups).

Haiti’s situation is much the same. The capital, Port-au-Prince, has been overrun by armed gangs, and the gangs have taken control of the port and the roads to block food supplies from entering the city. Starving people provide excellent political leverage.

Most of Port-au-Prince’s 1.4 million people are going without food for days at a time and there is plenty of almost random killing, but famine is probably several months away in most parts of the country.

The key question here is whether any country will be willing to intervene in the next few months to stop the worst from happening. The answer is likely to be ‘no’, because countries have already sent troops and aid too many times, only to find that they end up being blamed for failing to cope with the intricacies of the perpetual Haitian power struggle.

The Gaza Strip is also clearly a man-made famine, in the sense that without the war it would not be happening. It was Hamas that started the war, and it undoubtedly intended to trigger a massively violent Israeli retaliation. It would then use the Palestinian victims created by that response to further its own political agenda.

That’s standard guerilla strategy, so the Israelis knew what Hamas wanted them to do. The fact that the Israeli Defence Forces did it anyway was a deliberate decision by the Israeli government. So what did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government hope to gain from the destruction and the food blockade?

There is a deliberate food blockade, although Jerusalem denies it. Aerial photos from late last month show 2,000 trucks waiting to cross at Rafah. Most are still there now, containing enough food to feed everyone in Gaza. Some have been waiting for as long as 90 days. This is not Israeli incompetence. It is Israeli policy.

There are already children dying of starvation every day in the northern Gaza Strip, and the consensus of the IPC (the major food aid organisations) is that “Famine is imminent in the northern governorates of the Gaza Strip and projected to occur anytime between mid-March and May 2024.”

Random air drops of food and a new pier in a couple of months’ time for food deliveries by Israel’s ‘allies’ will not prevent that outcome. So is the Israeli policy merely one of taking vengeance on the innocent, or is it intended to empty the Gaza Strip of its Palestinian population?

I never thought I would write that sentence, not because I thought Israelis are more moral than other people but because I believed they were not stupid. There is nowhere else for those 2.4 million Palestinians to go, and Israel’s allies, especially the United States, would never condone such an act of ethnic cleansing. It’s not 1948 any more.

But then again, I didn’t think that Putin’s regime would be stupid enough to invade Ukraine either.


Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Gwynne Dyer