Environment and Justice

The History of Poverty in the Southern Red Sea Region

Dr. Steven Serels

This ground-breaking project will uncover the long-term factors that have precipitated the current crisis of poverty in the Southern Red Sea Region (SRSR). The SRSR, which is comprised of modern day Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, is one of the poorest regions of the world. Though poverty in the SRSR has long been identified by global leaders as a primary contributing factor to international instability, there has been no previous attempt to systematically and comprehensively study the historical processes that impoverished this region.

This project argues that communities in the SRSR were historically able to harness aspects of the natural environment in order to develop a closely linked, multifaceted socio-economic system that transcended ethnic, linguistic and political divides. These links produced wealth and stability during the SRSR’s Golden Age. Tragically, they also ensured that impoverishment, when it set in, was a cascading, region-wide phenomenon.

The project hypothesizes that the impoverishment of the SRSR was driven by the disruption of the patterns of human-environment interaction that underpinned the regional socio-economic system. This disruption was caused by both human agency and environmental variability. As a result, this project seeks to understand the complex interplay between the social, political, economic and environmental factors that impoverished the region.

The project further hypothesizes that this regional crisis was set off by local responses to an unprecedented two-hundred-year-long region-wide mega-drought that started in the mid-seventeenth century. These responses altered the SRSR socio-economic system in ways that radically weakened the shared moral economy and that increased competition over access to life-supporting resources. The combined effect of these often violent struggles and of the dismantling of the traditional social safety net resulted in the impoverishment of the region.