Famine in Somalia: A Wake-Up Call for Western Foreign Policy-Makers

The Horn of Africa famine continues to claim lives and livelihoods across south-central Somalia, the heartland of the Al-Shabaab insurgency where neither the government nor the international community dare to tread. Sustained commitment and co-operation are needed on all sides to mitigate the crisis.

By Anna Rader for RUSI.org

The designation of Somalia's acute humanitarian crisis as famine on 20 July was an overdue recognition of the severity of the latest drought in a country where livelihood insecurity takes on a new meaning. Ever since the collapse of the state in 1991, Somalis have survived through a combination of entrepreneurialism and the relative stability provided by the social institutions of Islam and kinship. But in the face of the worst drought in sixty years, such resilience has failed - less because of the breakdown of these coping mechanisms, and more because of the perfect storm conjured by an ineffective central government, a tenacious insurgency across the south-central region and the lethargy of the international machine.

Drought is not uncommon in Somalia, but this is the first famine in twenty years. Many factors are to blame, not least inadequate rainfall since the seasonal rains failed this time last year. Skyrocketing cereal prices have also meant that sorghum and maize, two local staples, are 150-200 per cent higher than July 2010. In addition, the continued insecurity posed by the Al-Shabaab insurgency, whose militiamen impede movement across Somalia and extort food from villages under their control, has undermined local responses to drought. The turning point for many came when they had to slaughter or sell their animals; Somali herdsmen place a huge value on camels, sheep and goats, which form the primary asset of most smallholdings. Without these, Somalis across the country have become destitute and impoverished. Many have risked their lives to travel to Mogadishu or across the country to the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Stories abound of the hardship they face on such a journey, including arbitrary killing and rape, and the inability to find food and water along the way. Of the children who do make it to the camps, few survive more than a few days.

The Long-Term Impact of Internal Displacement

Even before this latest crisis, Somalia was one of the largest generators of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. There are an estimated 750,000 Somali refugees across the Horn of Africa, including in nearby Yemen; and nearly 1.5 million people are displaced within Somalia. These numbers bespeak a national humanitarian tragedy. Now, tens of thousands of people are leaving their homes in search of assistance - an estimated 27,000 people flooded into Mogadishu in July alone, despite ongoing fire fights between Al-Shabaab militants and AMISOM soldiers in its streets. The Afgooye corridor, a 10-mile strip northwest of the capital, is reportedly the largest concentration of displaced people on the planet. For those who can cross the border, the refugee camps in Dadaab - a two-decade-old conurbation of tent settlements in Kenya - and in Ethiopia have swelled by over 100,000 people this year. Dadaab was intended to hold 90,000 refugees; the current population is estimated to be around 400,000. The UNHCR recently opened a third camp in southeast Ethiopia but its maximum capacity was also quickly reached. Conditions in the camps are severe: overcrowding has strained shelter, food and water provisions; and doctors and public health officials fear a cholera epidemic.

Kenya and Ethiopia have expressed concern over the volume of refugees. Both countries have their own drought victims, and the refugee camps based there already contain permanent populations who have been unable to return to Somalia because of security fears following the 2006 invasion by Ethiopian forces in support of the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Such concerns led to the delayed opening of a new camp, Ifo 2, near Dadaab: Kenya feared that housing refugees in permanent shelters would pose a security threat. A huge IDP and refugee population is also problematic for Somalia: the UNHCR estimates that a quarter of Somalia's population is now internally displaced or living outside the country as refugees. Second-generation Somalis are growing up in Dadaab, with no experience of the Somali homeland; and many IDPs reportedly suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, making their return and reintegration doubly difficult. With ongoing fighting between Al-Shabaab and government forces, as well as the sacrifice of herds and livelihoods, many Somalis will simply not be able to return for the foreseeable future. Such destitution and displacement will further undermine the kinship groups that have supported Somalis for decades; this is a serious long-term threat to Somali stability.

Humanitarian Aid in a Fragile State

International NGOs, foreign observers and even members of the Somali cabinet all warned that the consequences of the drought that began last year would be grave. But it takes months to put in place a campaign of assistance for a crisis of this magnitude, not least because the UN system must wait until acute malnutrition exceeds 30 per cent of the population and the death rate from restricted food access is more than 2 per 10,000 people a day until a famine can be declared. Those are not easy benchmarks to wait for. There is also the unappetising reality that, after the Japanese tsunami of March and the Haiti earthquake last year, raising the estimated $2.4 billion needed to feed 11-12 million people across the Horn of Africa was always going to be difficult - particularly because, as a cumulative event, picking the right time to sound the alarm is necessarily a tactical decision. The UN has been open about its funding gaps for Somalia; despite multiple appeals, the World Food Programme (WFP), a long-time operator in Somalia, was forced to ration supplies in the early stages of the famine. Now aid pledges have been made - the UK has given $205 million, the second largest donor behind the US - but the numbers still fall short of the UN requirement.

Added to this is the considerable logistical challenge of operating in a fragile state. Scaling up assistance from existing programmes takes time and money, as well as political will from donors. Moreover, the UN is largely confined to Mogadishu airport, few aid agencies have teams on the ground, the government has no reach beyond the capital, and there is little infrastructure - not least few paved roads - to facilitate food aid distribution. The piracy threat has also been cited as an impediment: the vast shipments of food aid have to be airlifted in since Somali pirates now control many of the ports along the northeast coast; Al-Shabaab controls Kismaayo in the south. There was also little in place in south-central Somalia because of the widespread insecurity and Al-Shabaab's ban on foreign aid from 2009. This has now been lifted, but many aid agencies lack capacity on the ground. Crucially, Somalis - and others across the Horn - will require long-term assistance, particularly because the famine is likely to continue into the end of the year: even if the rains do come again in October, they may not be enough to kickstart the recovery of the harvest.

A Tipping Point?

The backdrop to the famine is the complex political theatre of Somalia's enduring state failure. The entrenched insurgency by Al-Shabaab, the US-designated terrorist organisation that controls large swathes of south-central Somalia, has inhibited access and assistance, both by the government and international agencies, and by local Somalis themselves. Al-Shabaab's campaign of violence and guerrilla warfare has devastated the country and absorbed the attention of the Somali government and US policy. Al-Shabaab's decision to ban foreign aid has been held up as one of the reasons for the destructiveness of this drought; and the US in particular has been quick to blame Al-Shabaab for the famine.

But Al-Shabaab is not the only actor in Somalia. The TFG is generally regarded as weak and corrupt; it has been distracted by growing factionalism within its ranks, most recently demonstrated by the resignation of the prime minister in June, which has prevented it devising an appropriate plan of action. The famine has also exposed the international community's prevarication over a coherent response to Somalia's deep-set problems. Barack Obama, the US president, has admitted that the emergency has not had the attention it deserves. Indeed one might argue that it is Somalia itself that has not had the attention it needs to overcome the extraordinary perils of insurgency, piracy and underdevelopment. A form of benign neglect has permitted the current TFG to remain in power, with the parliamentary mandate extended for another year despite the fact that only limp progress has been made on key aspects of the transitional charter - including negotiation and reconciliation with elements outside the government. Al-Shabaab has now abandoned Mogadishu, permitting more food aid to the capital; but security is elusive. Militia remain in the city, whilst others have fanned out through the countryside into the five regions in which the famine prevails. Such a move should not be read as a retreat, but the TFG should nevertheless be encouraged to capitalise on the opportunity to deliver on key services and build credibility. That the famine was foreseen does not mean it could have been prevented. Nevertheless, this latest emergency is a wake-up call for Western policy-makers about the state of Somalia; now is the time to pay attention.   

Anna Rader is the editor of the RUSI Journal.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Anna Rader

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