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As Famine in Somalia Spreads there are only Complex, Dangerous And Partial Solutions to the Crisis

In recent months, the Horn of Africa – and especially Somalia – have been making front page news because of the famine gripping the region. The statistics are staggering:

-More than 12 million people are affected by the drought in the region and require humanitarian assistance, including 4 million Somalis which the UN considers “in crisis”

-750,000 people are at risk of death in the next four months – including 400,000 children

-Estimates indicate that tens of thousands of people – mostly children – have already died from hunger

- 100,000 IDPs have moved into Mogadishu in the last 2 months

-While substantial donations have already been made, the UN appeal is still short approximately $1 billion

A crisis of regional proportions with global roots and local factors

The New York Times has a couple of great graphics that show the scale of the unfolding crisis:

The UN just announced that a sixth region in Somalia was affected by famine, and Peter Gill says this is “Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis in 20 years.” While a historic drought – “the worst in 60 years” – in the Horn of Africa is affecting every country in the region, many point to the man-made nature of the crisis. Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development notes: “Evidence abounds that famines are not only the result of natural occurrences. On the contrary, most are the shocking result of human error or, in the worst case, deliberate neglect.” Food insecurity is not a new phenomenon in the region, and there were plenty of warning signs that pointed to an impending crisis (Al Jazeera notes that “The United States-funded Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has alerted national and international players in the East Africa region about the crisis at least six times over the last year.“) In addition to local factors affecting food security – food production hampered by drought – and an unfortunately sluggish political and international response, the crisis is also amplified by inflation in global food prices and recent shocks in commodity markets. For other countries affected by the drought – like Kenya and Ethiopia who are hosting hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees (423,000 and 141,000, respectively), communities that were already vulnerable because of the drought are further fragilized by new arrivals causing additional strain on local food supply.

Delivering aid to those who need it most in Somalia

The situation in Somalia is alarming, though almost all accounts are sent from the capital, the only part of the country accessible to aid organizations and media. In The Guardian, the international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Dr Unni Karunakara notes that while MSF has been able to assist in refugees camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, it is very difficult for the organization to reach the “epicenter of the crisis” in Somalia. He notes, soberly: “We may have to live with the reality that we may never be able to reach the communities most in need of help.”

The Shabab militant group, which controls most of the region where famine is occuring in Somalia, has shown a lot of hostility towards Western aid agencies and effectively prevented aid from reaching people in dire need. Swaths of territory are out of reach for food aid, health care and humanitarian assistance, forcing people to essentially flee or die. Those who manage to escape Shabab strongholds wind up in Mogadishu or refugee camps across the border in terrible health conditions. The challenge for aid agencies is to be able to reach those in need. With hundreds of thousands of people on the move and the inherent danger of operating in Shabab-controlled areas, an effective humanitarian response seems practically impossible.

In addition to the enormous logistical and security challenges associated with delivering aid in this unstable part of the world, local systems of distribution are also affected by corruption and theft. The United Nations World Food Program, which relies on local contractors for the distribution of food aid in Somalia, is currently investigating claims that “thousands of sacks of grain and other supplies” have been stolen and resold on the market. Both the New York Times and Al-Jazeera report that food is still available in Mogadishu, but that prices have tripled in the past year, making food unaffordable. Some suggest beginning air lifts into areas that are out of reach, and setting up more decentralized systems of aid distribution outside of refugee camps, in areas currently cut off from aid. Others, like MSF’s Dr. Karunakara, seem to believe that there are real limits to the effectiveness of humanitarian aid in Somalia.

Now is the time to prevent the next crisis

Beyond urgently dealing with the immediate consequences of the present crisis, many are calling for more attention to be given to the underlying factors that make communities and countries vulnerable to environmental shocks. Insecurity, poor governance, local and regional conflicts weaken Somalian agricultural production and food supply, and communities do not have the resources – loans, credit, infrastructure, inputs, social services -  to deal with drought. Not only should governments and the international community respond much sooner – before a famine situation is actually declared – but, as I’ve written here before, investment in strengthening regional and local food production systems as well as measures to stabilize food markets are critical. These types of policies and programs go hand in hand with a firm resolve to address the root causes of chronic poverty. Given Shabab’s control of key parts of Somalia and structural corruption in the aid system, this may be extremely difficult to achieve in the short run. Acknowledging these obstacles, however, is a first step towards rethinking an approach to humanitarian and development aid in this troubled part of the world.


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