Fatal Failure: Did Aid Agencies Let Up To 100,000 Somalis Die in 2011?

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Dominic Nahr / Magnum for TIME

Hundreds of Somali women and their chidlren wait outside a mobile medical unit supplying medicine in Badbaado camp in Mogadishu, August 10, 2011.

Even the best aid agencies find they can rarely admit their faults. Aid depends on donations, and donors need to feel confidence and trust to hand over money to an aid agency, which means the $126-billion-a-year foreign aid industry might collapse if aid groups didn’t present a convincing portrait of capable altruism. In some ways, that’s a good thing: it encourages aid organizations to produce good results.  But it also encourages them to make results look good. That immutable fact of aid agency life finds recognition in the positioning of a publicity and marketing operation at the core of any big aid organization. These departments have two aims: to present the agency in the best possible light, and to drum up donations for their work. Self-criticism is extremely rare.

So mark this date, Wednesday, Jan. 18. Because today two of the world’s biggest aid groups, Oxfam and Save the Children, admitted that however inadequate the public and government response to last year’s famine in Somalia (and it was, and continues to be, insufficient), the emergency response from aid agencies and the U.N. was in any case so flawed that it allowed anything between 50,000 and 100,000 people to die.

The wide discrepancy in that estimate of deaths — actually calculated by Britain’s Department for International Development — is indicative of the single biggest problem facing any aid operation inside Somalia: very few people have an accurate idea of what’s going on there. Somalia is a place with almost no government or law, at war with itself for two decades and therefore perhaps the most difficult terrain in the world in which aid agencies operate. In southern Somalia, those obstacles are exacerbated by the presence of an Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabab. The most extreme al-Shabab leaders refuse Western aid on principle and on occasion have reinforced that ban with deadly force. For its part, the biggest Western donor, the U.S., redoubles the aid prohibition by making it illegal for agencies to distribute their food in ways or areas that might benefit terrorists, including al-Shabab.

(VIDEO: How a Drought Became a Famine in Somalia)

Perhaps understandably, few aid agencies dare to put anyone on the ground in southern Somalia. Most can only guess at conditions there. The same goes for most journalists. In that sense, southern Somalia is an information black hole. It’s the kind of place where disasters can be difficult to notice even when they’re happening, let alone to predict.

Or is it? Because the aid world does have an extremely accurate forecasting service in East Africa, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET), which transforms satellite and remote sensing information on rainfall and vegetation to make predictions about harvests and food security. And as Oxfam and Save the Children noted in their report, A Dangerous Delay, last year’s drought and famine in East Africa “was no sudden-onset crisis”. “Forecasts of the impending crisis started in August 2010” after a failure of the rains. Despite more strident predictions in November  and December 2010, then another warning in March of a “major crisis” and even famine in some areas  that followed more forecasts of more poor rains, “the call was not adequately heeded.” Nor was FEWSNET the only organization to be sounding an alarm. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had announced the median rate of acute malnutrition in southern Somalia was already 16% in August 2010 — above the 15% threshold which should automatically trigger an emergency humanitarian response — rising to 25 per cent in January 2011, and then to a record 36% in August 2011.

Extra funding didn’t arrive on time because it was never asked for; funding for relief in Somalia actually fell in the first six months of 2011. The U.N., which bases its assessments on past data rather than forward-looking predictions and only updates its view of an ongoing crisis every six months, didn’t declare a famine and open an appeal until July 2011, after the media began highlighting the disaster and nearly a full year after the first warnings of a hunger crisis. Many aid agencies moved too slowly too, including Oxfam and Save the Children. The reports’ authors admit their organizations “declared the situation a corporate priority [only] at the end of June and early July respectively.”

(MORE: Somalia: A Famine We Made?)

The result of this failure to plan for, and respond to, disaster? In Ethiopia and Kenya, “far greater malnutrition, suffering and damaged livelihoods than would have been the case with more concerted preventive action and early relief.” In Somalia, “while it is impossible to calculate exactly how many people have died in this crisis, one estimate suggests that it could be between 50,000 to 100,000 people, more than half of them children under five.”[Other authoritative aid group estimates seen by TIME put the total even higher, at 150,000.] “An earlier response,” the report continues, “would have reduced rates of malnutrition. And more substantial provision of food, nutrition, clean water and health services would have reduced the number of deaths. If an early response had saved even a small proportion of these lives, then thousands of children, women and men would still be alive.”

Oxfam and Save the Children are not able to resist temptation to self-promote entirely. Later on in the report, they write “Save the Children … has reached more than 280,000 people in Somalia … Oxfam has reached 1.5m.” As TIME and others have pointed out to Oxfam repeatedly, in articles, blogs, and emails, this is disingenuous. By using the term “Somalia,” the agencies are including work they are doing in areas such as Puntland and Somaliland, which are not in famine and which makes the two agencies appear to be helping far more famine victims than they actually are. Moreover the word “reaching” would seem to imply that both agencies have staff on the ground in southern Somalia, when the truth is they have none but instead pay local charities to do the work for them. Nor does Oxfam, for one, do substantial food distribution.

Nevertheless, the two agencies deserve praise for what, in an industry with a poor history of transparency and performance assessment, is a document of mostly clear-eyed, constructive self-criticism. Recommendations for change include an emphasis on greater flexibility, shorter reaction times and, most important, a switch in focus from “managing crisis to managing risk,” essentially working to prevent what might happen rather than waiting for catastrophe to happen before reacting. Noting that more food crises are already on the horizon in Niger and Sudan, and that East Africa itself sees recurrent droughts and famines, the agencies conclude: “There is an urgent need to put what has been learned into practice. The international aid community and national governments must … start implementing changes now, so that next time we do more, more quickly, to protect vulnerable people.”

MORE: The Collateral Crisis in Somalia