Somalia Famine and International Response
Somalia Famine and International Response
Somalia: Making the Most of the EU-Somalia Joint Roadmap
Somalia: Making the Most of the EU-Somalia Joint Roadmap
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Somalia Famine and International Response

The pictures of starving Somalis are back. Not since the horrific famine and infamous Black Hawk down incident of the early 1990s has a Horn of Africa country dominated so much attention.

Last month the UN declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, with the whole of the south sure to follow soon unless the international community steps in. The UN estimates over $300 million is necessary in the next two months to combat the crisis. The U.S. should temporarily remove aid restrictions and allow help to start flowing in. 

Two years of scant rainfall, regional conflict and soaring world food prices have produced severe food shortages for 11.5 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Over 3 million of those people, the equivalent of the entire population of Los Angeles, are in Somalia alone.

It is only a matter of time before famine—when over 30 percent of the population is malnourished—is declared in much of southern Somalia. With tens of thousands of deaths in the past few months and malnutrition rates as high as 50 percent in some parts of the country, the UN has already declared a famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of the country.

Those who can are fleeing the country in search of food. Thousands are staggering into Ethiopia and Kenya. 170,000 Somalis have left since January, and unless humanitarian aid arrives quickly, this outflow will exacerbate crises throughout the Horn of Africa.

The US has suspended aid to Somalia out of fear the money might reach the terrorist organization al-Shabaab, a group loosely associated with al-Qaeda. This year’s humanitarian aid to Somalia, announced July 20, will total $78 million. In 2008 it was $237 million, but dropped to $28 million in 2010.

It’s true that some aid has been diverted to armed actors in the past. However, much of that is due to lack of oversight and a lazy reliance on a few Somali contractors. Since 2010, UN operations in Somalia have been under greater scrutiny.

The World Food Program also suspended its operations in Somalia in 2010 due to attacks and threats from al-Shabaab. The terrorist group subsequently banned the WFP, arguing—not without cause—that the assistance, especially in the form of free food, created a disincentive for farmers to grow more on their own.

Al-Shabaab is not monolithic and was split about the decision. In early July, a part of the organization appealed for the return of humanitarian groups, presumably in response to pressure from local clans. However, later in the month another spokesman said that there was no famine and that the UN announcement was “sheer propaganda.”

Most agencies have announced that they will return if there are guarantees they will not be “taxed,” and food will not be diverted. However, given the complex situation on the ground, some diversion is unavoidable.

The U.S. and others should therefore temporarily lift restrictions that prohibit aid groups from operating in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. While this will inevitably result in small amounts of aid reaching the group, the marginal benefit to al-Shabaab will be far outweighed by the need and the goodwill the assistance will generate among the Somali people and the Muslim world in general. With the start of Ramadan less than a month away, this offers a good opportunity to begin shifting perceptions that the West only cares about combatting terrorism.

In addition to helping prevent the current crisis, the international community should focus on deep-seated issues such as re-establishing peace and security in south and central Somalia. It is no coincidence that the humanitarian crisis has been much less severe in more stable regions, such as the northern Somaliland and Puntland. Creating such stability in the famine-stricken regions will require greater willingness on the part of the Transitional Federal Government, still only in control of parts of the capital, Mogadishu, to reconcile with local actors and share power with local and regional actors, including those elements of al-Shabaab willing to renounce terrorism. The international community should also support stable, responsive and accountable local authorities providing desperately needed assistance and services to local people.

This “dual-track” approach provides an opportunity for the U.S. to show the Somali people that it cares about more than just counterterrorism in their country. Feeding starving children builds goodwill that will go farther than intelligence operations and drone strikes ever could.

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