Feeding The Hungry

Advocacy and blame in the global fight against hunger

Michelle Jurkovich

Band Aid’s platinum-bestselling song of 1984–5, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, may have ignited a cosmopolitan sense of compassion, but its central plea to “Feed the World” is as vague as the problem of hunger is entrenched. Feed the world? Who is responsible? How should it be done? In Feeding the Hungry, a concise and insightful analysis of anti-hunger advocacy, Michelle Jurkovich explores this conceptual problem.

Most would agree that the existence of chronic hunger in the world is undesirable. But states and anti-hunger organizations diverge over how it should be tackled. Jurkovich conducts a survey of a dozen organizations, including Action Against Hunger, Care, FIAN International, Oxfam and the
Rockefeller Foundation, asking them who is “to blame” for chronic hunger? And what is the solution?

For the first question, answers include transnational corporations, national governments, outside governments, price speculators and “lack of capacity”. For the second, respondents proposed agricultural development, food aid, safety nets, gender equality, regulation and climate action. In other words, there is no consensus on either matter.

There is no “norm” when it comes to addressing hunger, Jurkovich emphasizes. When hunger exists, no single actor can be blamed and shamed, which helps to explain the global stasis. This problem is confirmed by the flimsiness of the “right to food”. Promulgated into international law in 1966, the right to food should help advocacy efforts: it gives governments responsibility for ensuring populations do not go hungry. But governments are rarely pursued or held to account on the point. In part this is because organizations fear being kicked out of countries by angry governments or becoming embroiled in lengthy and expensive legal processes. And so,
little changes, and most people continue to see hunger as a development shortcoming rather than a rights violation.

Policy makers, activists and academics must construct a shared understanding of hunger as a human rights issue if we are to get beyond this impasse, Jurkovich concludes. The extraordinary public reaction to Band Aid’s song showed the moral purchase of hunger. With a common framing of the problem, campaigns could pressure governments to tackle hunger more effectively. That way, we really might feed the world.

Times Literary Supplement


Can Libya’s Migrant Detention System Be Reformed?

Following the cessation of hostilities in Libya and the efforts of Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to decriminalize the country’s security sector, there are grounds for considering whether there is now scope for reform of Libya’s migrant-detention system. But, given the involvement of militia groups in the detention centres and Libya’s post-conflict politics, what are the prospects for reform?

On the night of 2 July 2019, an airstrike hit the Tajoura detention centre outside Tripoli, killing 53 migrants. The outcry for the closure of such centres in Tripoli was immediate. Observers asked why hundreds of migrants were being held at such a site, with the conflict raging around the country’s capital. Governments called for immediate changes to Libya’s policies on holding migrants. Yet, over a year later, little has changed. Detention centres continue to operate adjacent to military sites, and these centres are secured by militias, some of whom fought in the 2019–2020 conflict to control Tripoli.

There are 34 detention centres holding an estimated 3 200 migrants in Libya, 20 of which – at least nominally – fall under the authority of the Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM). The fact that all detention centres in the country are secured by militias is problematic, not only because this enables abuse against detainees but also because the militias are active in armed conflict. In the Tariq al-Sikka centre, for example, many of the guards fought on the side of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord against the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) during the 2019–2020 conflict. Another militia, the Abu Salim Central Security (ASCS) force, guards the Abu Salim detention centre. That militia was heavily involved in the conflict, taking many casualties in the area around Tripoli International Airport.

Investigation and Deportation Units (IDUs) are another element in Libya’s detention system. Their emergence has coincided with increasing numbers of unauthorized migrant releases at disembarkation points. These migrants can end up in an IDU before being transferred to a detention centre. IDUs are also run by militias, despite their semi-formal status under the DCIM.

How Militias Benefit From Involvement In Detention

Militias benefit from detention centres through their involvement in human smuggling or trafficking networks, by using detainees for labour, by diverting goods intended for detainees, or posturing as state security services to boost their legitimacy.

In the Souq al-Khamis area near al-Khoms, where human smuggling has escalated, there are several armed groups, and the Souq al-Khamis detention centre lies within their web of operations. Militias bribe or extort migrants for money. The 2017 UN Panel of Experts report found that the al-Nasr Battalion and its commander, Mohammed Kushlav, were complicit in human-smuggling operations around the Zawiya littoral. The guards at the al-Nasr centre are likely to have profited from extortion or bribery, along with unauthorized releases of migrants for payments, a form of human trafficking.

Some militias exploit detained migrants for labour. The work migrants are forced to do often involves cleaning weapons and loading ammunition, which risks detention centres being regarded as viable military targets – as was the case with the airstrike on the Tajoura centre in 2019.

Militias in several detention centres also profit by diverting and reselling goods meant for use inside the centres. As militias are not subjected to any meaningful state supervision, they are free to act as ‘gatekeepers’, siphoning off goods in return for the security they provide.

Some armed groups meanwhile present themselves as an extension of the state’s law enforcement. The Subul al-Salam militia, for example, has promoted its credentials as an anti-smuggling actor (despite allegations that it is involved in people smuggling). These tactics are often driven by a desire to gain state backing and legitimacy. Such arrangements potentially offer a safer and more lasting form of job security and income, particularly if any national stabilization or security sector reform processes are realized.

The Effects of the Conflict

In June 2020, the LAAF were pushed back from Tripoli – a victory for the GNA and its aligned armed groups. Winning the battle for Tripoli has thrown the balance of power in Tripolitania into renewed flux as politicians and militia leaders vie with one another and between themselves for the upper hand in the post-conflict context.

Bashagha is faced with a division of authority between the DCIM’s head, Mabrouk Abd al-Hafiz, and the undersecretary for migration, Mohammed al-Shibani, who has close links to Usama al-Juweili, the commander of the Western Military Region. This division is more than administrative and points towards the interdependence of militia leaders and public officials in the distribution of power.

In July 2020, for example, al-Hafiz removed Mohammed al-Khoja, the leader of the Tripoli militia running the Tariq al-Sikka detention centre. By September, however, it was clear al-Khoja had ignored this instruction and was still in Tripoli. One source said that al-Khoja’s influence had increased within the DCIM because of his role during the Battle for Tripoli. Removing al-Khoja would have increased Bashagha’s authority over the detention system, an effort that has failed.

In another example following the end of the fighting, one of the leaders of the armed group that runs the Mabani IDU was appointed in July by Libya’s prime minister to a senior position in the government’s intelligence service – despite the fact that his militia is known to extort detainees.

Prospects for Security Sector Reform

These developments hint at the contest at play between politicians vying for militia loyalty, and indicate the powerful influence militias exert over state officials and resources. They point to the fact that power in western Libya is still measured by military strength. Even though the conflict has subsided, armed groups continue to retain the power to shape national politics.

This has two worrying consequences. The first is that government officials are forced to formalize ad hoc power arrangements based on whichever armed group happens to hold martial advantage in a given area. The part-formalization of IDUs, where militia-run holding sites are given a veneer of legitimacy through the presence of DCIM officials, suggests as much. This effectively creates a path for individuals involved in armed organized crime, such as al-Khoja and others, to become part of the official state apparatus, whether military, intelligence or government.

Secondly, the fact that competing militia groups control the detention centres and their surrounding areas helps create resistance to a unified central authority. For example, the Abu Salim area of Tripoli, and its detention centre, is controlled as if it were a quasi mini-state by the ASCS.

This is an immensely challenging context in which to pursue security sector reform. Bashagha, the interior minister, has had limited success in pursuing this and he has faced opposition from politically connected militia elites.

In Bashagha’s favour, there have been protests around the country of late demanding better governance. Moreover, some of Libya’s key international partners maintain a particular interest in strengthening the country’s migration governance. Reforming the detention system is an area where several parties’ interests overlap. Delivering such a programme would heed those calls that followed the Tajoura airstrike, avert criminality and do a service to the thousands of migrants currently at risk of abuse. The question remains whether the GNA, faced with these internal divisions, can forge such a path.

Published for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime

The Orwell Essays

Orwell-Essays-1Brian Sewell, who died in 2015, was primarily known as an art historian. Opinionated, snooty and disdainful of popular culture, he became something of an ironic celebrity in his later years. Between 1996 and 2003, he was a columnist for the Evening Standard with a brief to “express opinion on any serious matter that interested me”. The Orwell Essays presents a selection of these articles, on subjects as diverse as Zionism, fox hunting, pornography, bear baiting, homelessness and the Elgin Marbles.

Throughout these essays, Sewell challenges “political correctitude”. On spoken English, for example, he resents the “inverse snobbery” of the idea that “the ugly accents of Liverpool and Birmingham are better than a received pronunciation that reflects the literary form and is intelligible worldwide”. He describes the hypocrisy of “blinkered” MPs who ignore the cruelty of the poultry and livestock industries, but support a ban on hunting as a “politically correct absurdity”. He defends Enoch Powell.

Sewell emerges as compassionate, and committed to improving the welfare of the poorest in society, as well as animals. He empathizes with London’s beggars, and challenges the government line that young people on the street “should not have left home” as “unrealistic”, given the complex domestic tragedies many of these adolescents face. He attacks Tony Blair for seeing “the homeless, the vandal and the mugger as a single problem”. In several essays, Sewell abhors industrial animal farming. He laments the living conditions of battery hens: “reared in huge barrack sheds without windows, as many as 30,000 in each, the noise, stench and heat unbearable to any human being”; the birds are duly “slaughtered on the 42nd day of their wretched lives”.

Sewell possesses foresight on issues such as housing and foreign policy. “To save our countryside”, he writes, “we must first regenerate our cities.” Urban planning should focus on building upwards, rather than outwards. Attractive high-rise buildings with “airy” apartments, he believes, would be more convenient for city-dwellers while protecting the countryside from the encroachment of “wasteful garden cities like Welwyn, Letchworth, Harlow and the execrable Milton Keynes”. In a piece written in October 2001, he is sceptical of intervention in Afghanistan, asking whether any “replacement government” and “democratic elections” could work.

These articles are refreshingly honest, fearless, insightful and humane. Sewell was awarded the Orwell Prize for them in 2003.

The Times Literary Supplement

Six Authors in Search of Justice


Book Review for the Times Literary Supplement


Michael Newman traces the lives and works of six politically engaged writers “in search of justice”: Victor Serge, Albert Camus, Jorge Semprún, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ariel Dorfman and Nadine Gordimer. They wrote journalism, novels, histories, plays and essays, and adhered to Bertolt Brecht’s notion that, as intellectuals, they could “turn the struggles into the spheres of common knowledge and, above all, justice into a passion”.

All six writers were committed to a tradition (pursued previously by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill) that seeks to answer the question “how can justice be advanced?” rather than engaging in the more celebrated “contractarian” tradition of considering “what would be perfectly just institutions?” (as examined by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls).

In their pursuit of justice, the authors made “compromises of various kinds”. Camus, for example, opposed though he was to the Vichy government and its racial laws against Jews, continued to write for Paris-Soir, despite it “carrying pro-Vichy propaganda and anti-Jewish articles”. He only left the paper when they made him redundant at the end of 1941. No doubt threats and the traumas of imprisonment and torture influenced these authors’ decision-making. Newman believes that Ngũgĩ, “partly as a result of his own brutal incarceration”, began to see “democracy and legal justice” over armed insurrection as the means to achieve “social justice” in Kenya. This idea was reflected in his novel Matigari (1987) and conveyed satirically in Petals of Blood (1977) and The Devil on the Cross (1980).

All the authors initially identified with socialism of various persuasions – what Newman refers to as a “Marxist conception of justice”. Yet their commitment to socialism was always relegated beneath “liberal”, “legal” or “historical” notions of justice. The former Bolshevik Serge, for example, “increasingly stressed the realms of liberty, free speech, artistic creation, democratic representation, and legal justice” over communist revolution. The one-time French Communist Party member Camus famously renounced his commitment to the ideology. He later shifted his focus, opposing Charles de Gaulle’s use of capital punishment following the Second World War. Dorfman similarly illustrates the trend: a former Marxist party member in Chile, aware that Pinochet’s brutal regime was dictatorial, he engaged in an opposition that eventually amounted to mere “recognition of, and justice for, the survivors and victims of the dictatorship”. Semprún also abandoned socialism, acknowledging that Spain’s transition “offered great continuity to the economic, political, judicial and military elites” yet supported the centre-right coalition as necessary to establish democracy.

Through her fiction, Gordimer also privileged “historical” justice. Her novel The Conservationist (1974), for example, portrayed apartheid as an unjust anachronism through the wealthy industrialist Mehring, a character “embodying the system of racial and socioeconomic domination”, whose world falls apart.  Like most of the authors, Gordimer supported conciliation, or “transitional” justice: after apartheid, she championed South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As a meditation on the shifting moral, intellectual and artistic compass of writers confronting oppression, Six Authors in Search of Justice is illuminating.

Times Literary Supplement

Unfinished Revolutions

Beneath a preacher Ahura 2011

Unfinished Revolutions – Yemen, Libya and Tunisia after the Arab Spring

Ibrahim Fraihat’s Unfinished Revolutions is ambitious in its scope and intent. Based on hundreds of interviews, it grapples with the fallout of the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and considers how these societies can “transition” towards a peaceful future. As the title suggests, Fraihat sees national reconciliation as the means by which the Arab Spring uprisings can be “finished” – where citizens’ unmet aspirations can be harnessed into more stable forms of governance.

Fraihat recognizes that the Arab Spring revolts were “leaderless, motivated at the grass-roots level, and lacked a theoretical framework to guide their progress”. The one objective opponents could agree on was the removal of their tyrannical dictators. Beyond this singular goal, however, there was little consensus among the many different “revolutionaries” on what they actually wanted from their revolution.

In the past five years, not only have these states been unable to resolve more structural challenges (around their economies, for example), they have also failed to address grievances (such as decades of human rights violations in the form of killings, disappearances, rape and torture) that have plagued their societies for generations. In most cases, the perpetrators of these horrors have not been prosecuted. This absence of justice has, in effect, driven conflict in Libya and Yemen.

Only by engaging the wider population within reconciliation processes, Fraihat argues, will these countries “avoid civil conflict and maintain or regain national unity”. National dialogue, truth-seeking, reparations, accountability and lustration (concerning the former regimes), as well as institutional reform are proposed as the paramount approaches for reconciliation. Civil society organizations, women and tribes, meanwhile, are seen as key agents for such peace-building initiatives.

Fraihat is right to stress the importance of timing, national ownership and regional diplomacy for reconciliation to succeed, as is his assertion of the need for deep institutional reforms. The mundane point that the recommendations that ensue from agreements must be implementable is crucial (and frequently overlooked). He acknowledges that the “transition process that follows regime change is inherently complex”. But at times his prescriptive text skirts over the details, giving little evidence-based analysis on why or when reconciliation should occur. Reconciliation is treated as a panacea for three very different countries. Deeper research would have strengthened his case.

Nevertheless, Unfinished Revolutions is clear and reasoned. As such, it will help those trying to find solutions to the daunting challenges facing Libya, Tunisia and Yemen today.


Times Literary Supplement