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The Horn of Africa Food Crisis

28 July 2011: Famine has again struck the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya have experienced widespread malnourishment, with almost 4 million people in need of immediate assistance in Somalia alone. EJ Hogendoorn, Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director, discusses the famine’s causes and implications.

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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Kimberly Abbott. Famine has returned to the Horn of Africa. Two years of poor rainfall, insecurity, and rising world food prices have led to widespread malnourishment in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. In Somalia, the epicenter of the crisis, 3.7 million people are in need of immediate food aid and thousands have already died in the last few months alone. But the presence of Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militant group in control of much of the affected territory has complicated the international humanitarian response.

I spoke earlier with  EJ Hogendoorn Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director to discuss the factors underlying the famine and how the international community should react.

EJ, what has led to this famine?

As you mentioned, there have been a couple of years of very sparse rainfall and erratic rainfall and that, compounded by the recent fighting that’s been experienced in southern Somalia, has led to the situation where all the food stocks have essentially vanished, and that is then compounded by the fact that world food prices are really high so all the urban poor especially, but also the rural poor, can’t afford to buy food any more, and they’re starving.

Why aren’t international aid groups coming to their rescue?

The short of it is that Al-Shabaab has essentially banned most of the large, food-providing agencies from operating in their areas. Other groups are also concerned that they cannot be operating there without running afoul of U.S. restrictions on the provision of assistance to southern Somalia because it might be benefiting Al-Shabaab, which is a designated terrorist organization. 

Isn’t it true though that the international community is receiving mixed messages from Al-Shabaab? There are some factions that are saying, yes, we would like your help please come in; others saying, no, we ban you from coming in. Can you explain the layers of Al-Shabaab and the different factions and who the international community should be paying attention to?

That’s a good point. Al-Shabaab is far from a monolithic organization, and it is divided amongst a number of different lines, including ideological, between hard-line conservatives and more pragmatic elements that are more concerned about local dimensions and the livelihoods of their populations. We believe that those conflicting messages that are being sent out are indicative of that, where certain people are saying we need aid to come in, we need to help our people, whereas there are more hard-line elements who say we don’t want to admit that there is a famine in our areas and want to try to ignore the plight of people under their control.

What is the political landscape of Somalia. It’s essentially been operating without a government for two decades, right?

When we talk about Somalia most people are actually only speaking about south Somalia because the North is relatively stable. There are two regional entities there, Somaliland and Puntland, which have been able to impose a degree of stability and peace and where, not coincidentally, there is no famine. In the south, you have the Transitional Federal Government, which is the recognized government based in Mogadishu, but it only controls about half the city and essentially relies on African Union forces to defend it and to combat Al-Shabaab. Much of the rest of southern Somalia is controlled by Al-Shabaab, which is an organization that has been designated as a terrorist organization and is trying to impose a very conservative version of Islam on the population.

What makes it a little more complicated is that even within south Somalia you have other groups that are also fighting Al-Shabaab. They’re not allied to the Transitional Federal Government, but they are fighting alongside it. Because all these different groups are fighting, you have this very chaotic situation which makes it very difficult for people to farm in peace or for people to trade, and that has compounded the impact of the poor rainfalls that we’ve been experiencing in southern Somalia and the Horn of Africa over the last two years.

How should the U.S. engage with Somalia and the groups you just described?

The U.S position is very troubling. We recognize that the United States has concerns that, if assistance is being given to areas under the control of Al-Shabaab, that some of that assistance may be diverted and used by Al-Shabaab to prosecute its campaign against both the Transitional Federal Government and against neighboring states.

That said, we think that the humanitarian need far outweighs whatever marginal impact the humanitarian assistance will give. In fact, this presents a unique opportunity for the United States to actually reverse some of these misperceptions that both Somalis and Muslims in general have about the West and their impression that the West is only concerned about the “War on Terror” and doesn’t really care about the humanitarian suffering that Muslims and Somalis are experiencing.

What do you foresee in the next few months in this situation? What’s the outlook for the population?

There may be a small harvest in the next month or two, but that will clearly not be enough to reverse the situation. According to all the estimates that are being gathered by the experts, quite clearly most of southern Somalia will be under famine conditions in the next two months unless there is a massive intervention by the international community.

And of course the question remains whether or not international organizations will be able to bring food to those populations in most need. If they don’t, what we can see is that those populations will then move to places where food is available, and you will see an even larger influx of refugees into Kenya, Ethiopia, and internally displaced camps in Mogadishu.

Famine isn’t new to the Horn of Africa. Why is it that this part of southern Somalia is feeling it so acutely this time?

Famine is actually a technical term that food experts use. It essentially is a situation where more than 30% of the population is malnourished, where you see an excess death rate of more than two out of ten thousand people a day, and where you start seeing things like massive population displacements in an effort to find food. 

The Horn of Africa is actually a very marginal livelihood zone. You typically have droughts in these regions. This is one reason why the Horn is infamous for these famines that have erupted over the decades.

Traditionally, people who have lived in those regions have developed livelihood strategies that allow them to cope with famine. Essentially, what they do is they stockpile food during years of plenty, so that they can ride out years of famine or years of drought.

Unfortunately, what has happened in southern Somalia is that the fighting has prevented them from growing sufficient food to be able to do that. That has been then compounded by the fact that world food prices are at record levels. People would normally use their savings to buy food to allow them to survive until the next planting season, but because it’s so expensive they are unable to do that. What is expected is that, while there will be a so-called humanitarian emergency in Kenya and Ethiopia and perhaps in northern Somalia, it will only become a famine in south Somalia.


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