Somalia: Food Security Emergency Spreads Despite Aid

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.

This post was commissioned as part of a Pulitzer Center/Global Voices Online series on Food Insecurity. These reports draw on multimedia reporting featured on the Pulitzer Gateway to Food Insecurity and bloggers discussing the issues worldwide.

As the Horn of Africa deals with what the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is calling the “most severe food security emergency in the world today,” experts warn that conditions in famine-stricken Somalia are likely to further deteriorate.

Over 12 million impacted

People line up for food at a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. Image by UN Photo/Stuart Price on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

People line up for food at a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. Image by UN Photo/Stuart Price on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Triggered by a combination of the worst drought in 60 years, conflict and high food prices, the food crisis in northeast Africa is affecting more than 12 million people, according to the FAO. While countries such as Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya have been severely impacted, Somalia has been hardest hit, facing the worst food security crisis in Africa in the last 20 years.

Five areas of Somalia are now suffering from famine, which is expected to spread to two more regions soon and even further in coming months. It has already killed tens of thousands of people, including some 29,000 children in the past three months. Another 3.7 million people across Somalia are in crisis. Of these, 3.2 million are in need of immediate lifesaving assistance.

In response, the FAO has held two emergency meetings in less than a month, the most recent of which was last week, to determine steps for dealing with the disaster.

But David Dorward, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University, says on website The Conversation, that there is one reason why Somalia has been more severely affected by this food crisis:

While droughts are caused by weather – the failure of the rains – famines are invariably political…

Crops have failed and livestock perished for want of pasture. But the problem is not spread evenly across the drought-affected region…

The famine has affected each part of the Horn in different ways. In each port, each capital, each refugee camp, politics decides who, and how many, will starve.

Continuous conflict

Somalia has experienced ongoing conflict since its civil war began in 1991. While there is a transitional government in place in the capital Mogadishu, the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab controls large portions of southern Somalia, where much of the famine is occurring. Al-Shabaab has banned many international aid groups, alleging ulterior motives on their part, and preventing hungry people from leaving the country, according to media sources.

John Campbell, blogging on the Council on Foreign Relations’ site, mostly blames al-Shabaab for the crisis:

In effect, al-Shabaab bears the most responsibility for the famine. The terrorist group continues to block Western aid workers during a drought that has displaced close to two million people, or a quarter of Somalia’s entire population. A few years ago, Shabaab dismantled a child vaccination campaign, claiming it was a Western plot; that program could have saved many children who have since succumbed to measles.

Suspected measles cases in Somalia have increased by over 660 percent compared to the same time last year, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and cases of cholera are also on the rise. But a report released last week by Human Rights Watch says all parties to Somalia’s armed conflict are contributing to the catastrophe.

An Associated Press investigation revealed last week that sacks of food meant for starving Somalis are being stolen and sold in markets. Soaring prices are also adding to the population's inability to access food. The prices of local food staples in Somalia have increased by up to 240 percent in the past nine months, exceeding the previous record high in 2008, according to media reports.

Another cause of the crisis, says Dave Algoso, an international development professional in Kenya, on his blog Find What Works is the failure to respond to the crisis early. Rebecca Sargent, blogging on a peace of conflict, also blames, among many other factors, large land lease “land grabs.”

The crisis has forced Somalis to flee to neighboring countries, including Ethiopia, Djibouti and, particularly, Kenya. The number of refugees at Kenya's Dadaab complex has reached around 400,000, even though it was built to hold 90,000, with an average of 1,300 Somalis arriving daily. In a series for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Samuel Loewenberg reports on Dadaab's “disastrously overcrowded” refugee camps.

As aid workers struggle to get food and water to those in need, some bloggers wonder what they can do. Ann Freeman, blogging on Upside My Head (Pay Attention Now), lists three ways to help, including increasing awareness. The World Food Programme has created a quiz to do just that. Cynthia Bertelsen, blogging on Gherkins and Tomatoes, wonders why more food writers and bloggers aren't discussing the famine.

Search for solutions

While emergency aid and short-term solutions are necessary, international agricultural experts who gathered at the FAO emergency meeting last week also stressed the need for long-term actions and policies to prevent future famines. Kenya's agriculture minister, for example, emphasized the need for drought-resistant seeds, small irrigation projects and infrastructure and examining the link between food production problems and climate change.

Hannah Ellison, writing for the Population Institute's blog, says for other reforms to work, family planning must also be part of the strategy. Jeffrey Swindle, blogging on USAID’s Global Broadband and Innovations site, discusses information and communications technology's potentially important role in organizing humanitarian relief efforts and preventing famines. United States professor Marion Nestle, blogging on Food Politics, says Somalia's politics must also be addressed:

We keep making the same mistakes.

This is because it seems—and in the case of Somalia is—much easier to deal with the immediate demand for food aid than to address the underlying politics that caused the problem in the first place.

But if we don’t deal with the underlying politics, the same tragedies occur again and again.

Despite the dire situation, some bloggers try to remain hopeful. Somali model Iman, blogging on The Huffington Post, lists five seeds of hope for Somalia, including the strength of the country's women. Ed Carr, blogging on Open The Echo Chamber, points out that if humans have caused this disaster, we can also prevent the next one. Dave Algoso injects a little hope on his blog, Find What Works, by sharing three uplifting videos. He says:

Images of starving famine victims often reinforce pessimistic stereotypes of hopeless Africans unable to do much for themselves. Against such images, we like to inject nuance and point to the complexity of the situation, in the hope of countering the stereotypes and provoking a better response from the consumers of Western media.

But another possible antidote is to simply combat simplistic hopelessness with simplistic hopefulness.

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.


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