Will We Really Let 750,000 People Starve to Death?

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A malnourished child with tuberculosis is bathed by his mother in Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia, August 9, 2011. A day later the child died. (Photo: Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME)

Are we really about to let three-quarters of a million people starve to death? The U.N. thinks we might. Figures describing the famine in Somalia from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) paint a consistent, horrifying picture. As of late September, hunger is besieging 12.4 million East Africans, with 3 million out of a total Somali population of 9 million living—if that’s the word—in a state of famine. The disaster is peaking in southern Somalia where in August the U.N. said aid was reaching just 20% of the people. And things are getting worse. Without more help, said UNOCHA on Sept. 6, “750,000 people are at risk of death in the coming four months.” Privately, aid workers say it’s already too late for hundreds of thousands of Somalis. Disaster was fast approaching on July 20 when the U.N. first declared a famine. We might have mitigated it if we had acted quickly and comprehensively. We didn’t. We still aren’t. More than two months later, the U.N. remains fatally short by $691 million of the $2.4 billion it says it needs to feed the starving.

Why should Somalia be different from Haiti or the Asian tsunami or the Kashmir earthquake—or even Live Aid, the West’s response to a famine in neighboring Ethiopia 26 years ago which seemed to herald a new humanitarian age? Why, in fact, is it different from the U.S.-led efforts to relieve famine in Somalia in 1992 and 1993? Perhaps, as one U.S. diplomat speculates, Americans—the world’s biggest donors—don’t feel much like helping a place that thanked it for its efforts with Black Hawk Down, when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed fighting a Mogadishu warlord in October 1993 and two soldiers’ bodies dragged through the streets, or which latterly has spawned an anti-American Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabab. Or perhaps, with Western economies tottering, the rest of the world is simply preoccupied with its own money problems.

(SEE: Stark, haunting photos of the humanitarian crisis in Somalia.)

These common explanations are unsatisfactory. The U.S. government has actually given the most to the East Africa appeal—$593 million by Sept. 27, according to UNOCHA —and the second biggest donor, with $267 million, is the debt-burdened E.U. Wealth, or lack of it, is actually a poor determinant of willingness to help. Take Kenya. It’s a developing country whose average annual income is just $1,600 a year. It’s also affected by the drought and it’s hosting 400,000 Somali refugees. Yet hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kenyans have contributed a total of $7 million.

A more plausible cause of miserliness is leaders with a weak sense of social responsibility. Lack of concern is particularly marked in Somalia’s former colonizer Italy, where the scandal-plagued government of Silvio Berlusconi has donated just $9.5 million. Just as bad are African governments. “African solutions to African problems” is a common refrain from Dakar to Djibouti today after decades of disempowering aid dependency. Somalia reveals it as empty rhetoric. In August, only four out of 55 African heads of state showed up to an African famine summit, and donations have been derisory. Nigeria, Africa’s oil and gas giant, pledged $2 million (and has not yet delivered). South Africa, home to Africa’s biggest economy and a ruling African National Congress (ANC) kept afloat for decades by the rest of the world during the anti-apartheid struggle, has handed over a mere $1.2 million of a promised $11.2 million.

The world’s disgrace is doubled by how little assistance reaches those most in need. That figure of 20% of southern Somalis receiving aid describes not just a pressing need but also a woefully inadequate aid operation. The famine is rooted in years of drought. But during six days we spent in August recording the tight ball of dying that Mogadishu has become, photographer Dominic Nahr and I uncovered a more immediate and sobering cause: the war between al-Shabab and the official, U.S.-backed government, which has led to an aid block on southern Somalia. In addition, while some Western aid agencies proclaim they are nobly reaching the hungry and ask for donations to do more, we saw no Western aid worker—not one—even in Mogadishu’s camps, which are outside al-Shabab territory.

Nick Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, believes there may be another reason we are letting Somalis die. He cites studies showing a media environment of ticker-tape TV, 2-minute radio bulletins and news via Twitter which make it “ever more difficult to engage in reflective, contemplative thought” of the kind the Somali famine requires. A University of California study suggests the Internet might also depress empathy which, says Carr, emerges “rather slowly in mind, hence can be short-circuited by distractions and interruptions.”

Of course, as Carr notes, if it wasn’t for the Internet, we might know even less about Somalia. But that just makes it worse. We can’t say later that we didn’t know. We do know. We know some aid groups and some governments have reacted better than others. We also know that, wherever most blame falls, the world’s overall response has been insufficient and hundreds of thousands of Somalis are about to die. We know that. And still we’re going to let them.