Somalia: A Very Man-Made Disaster

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Hundreds of Somali women and their children wait outside a mobile medical unit supplying medicine in Badbaado camp in Mogadishu, August 10, 2011. (Photo: Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME)

The difference between a drought and a famine is down to man. Texas is in the middle of its worst drought on record right now but cowboys aren’t starving – because Texas, and the US, have government and economy enough to ensure they don’t. Somalia doesn’t have any government worthy of the name and that’s one reason why persistent drought has pushed around 3 million Somalis in the south of the country close to starvation. The difference between ungoverned Somalia and its better-governed neighbors, Ethiopia and Kenya, is starkly visible on a map: on one side of the border, famine; on the other hunger, and a refugee crisis, but no mass starvation. As Nancy Lindborg, co-ordinating the US response to the famine, says: “If you ever needed a strong case for the need for democratic inclusive government…”

But Somalia’s famine is also about the lack of something else: a decent aid operation. There are three reasons the emergency effort to save starving Somalis is falling tragically short.

First, the UN was late calling it. The Famine Early Warnings Systems Network first warned of a hunger crisis last September, and that in a situation the UN has already labelled the worst humanitarian situation on earth for years. But it wasn’t until July 20 that the UN began an appeal, and called a famine. Given debt crises in Europe and the US, it is hardly surprising the UN found it could not instantly raise the $2.48 bln it said it needed. Funding today has reached just 55% of that total, “dangerously inadequate” said British International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell yesterday after visiting Mogadishu for a few hours.

Second, Western aid agencies aren’t reaching many of the starving. Some, incredibly, are pretending they are. Oxfam is one agency raising money for Somalia and claiming to be reaching hundreds of thousands when, as a spokesman admitted to TIME, it doesn’t actually distribute food and has no staff in the famine area. Less disingenuous agencies will admit the emergency operation is not going well. The UN says a mere 20% of the 2.8 million southern Somalis in need are being reached. The World Food Program, the big player in global famine relief, is reaching even less than that proportion among the 500,000 refugees in Mogadishu, largely because of security concerns. Nearly all Western aid workers stay on a sand-bagged, razor-wired base on the beach attached to Mogadishu airport that, sealed off from the city and patrolled by armed guards, is effectively hardly part of Somalia at all. Rarely do they venture out. WFP does send out 85,000 pre-cooked hot meals every day for distribution through local charities. But stopping mass starvation requires mass food delivery and no one has attempted that since the WFP’s one attempt at bulk ditribution in early August ended in a riot and seven deaths. Three weeks after the UN declared a famine, refugees I talked to in a camp just 200 meters from the airport had yet to be fed.

Third, southern Somalia is loosely controled by an al Qaeda-allied guerrilla group, al Shabab. The US listed al Shabab as an international terrorist group in 2008, a designation fully justified by its killing of 76 civilians in twin suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010. Delivering food aid is a dirty business, rife with pilfering, and like governments and aid contractors, al Shabab used to steal a proportion of the food that was delivered to its areas, either to eat itself or sell in the market. But with al Shabab’s listing, US aid officials and any aid worker handling US food suddenly had a legal obligation to ensure none of benefitted al Shabab, even inadvertently. The way they dealt with that was to suspend most aid to southern Somalia by the end of 2009. Al Shabab then added its own block by banning WFP, which it accused of being a US puppet, from its territory in January 2010.

The result is that not only are there now very few assistance operations in southern Somalia, there is no pipeline in place through which to funnel large of amounts of food aid in the event of an emergency. Perhaps realizing it had unwittingly helped cause a famine, earlier this month the US tried to reassure aid workers that it would not prosecute them if they accidentally ended up aiding or abetting al Shabab. But an emergency food aid operation takes weeks to put together, while food takes yet more weeks to ship around the world, and so far little extra aid has yet arrived. Moreover, officials from the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) aren’t shy about saying that they consider the famine, which has substantially weakened al Shabab, a real strategic boost. Their plan: defeat al Shabab first, and only then allow aid.

Caught in the middle of these excruciating dynamics are millions of starving Somalis. There is barely a spare piece of land in Mogadishu today, so many refugees are crowding the city. Local businessmen are adopting a few hundred familes here and there; some Middle Eastern and Islamic charities are also reaching those they can. But with so little done so late, there seems almost nothing to prevent tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Somalis from dying in the next few weeks. As they do, remember: this was preventable. Drought came from nature and climate change. But death, mass starvation, camp epidemics of cholera, measles, diarrhoea and malaria? Somehow, unbelievably, that’s on us.