The Forces Behind Famine

August 12th, 2011

To effectively deal with these worsening conditions, we must confront endemic corruption, terrorism, and lawlessness, writes Ann Hollingshead
Famine in Somalia

UN Photo/Stuart Price/Flickr*

There is a lot about the world that defies explanation. But if we do know one thing it’s that the world is a complicated place. That answers aren’t always obvious. That you have to look at short-run and long-run dynamics, with the full inter-play of all the forces, to truly begin to understand why things in our world happen as they do.

The tragic famine that struck Somalia this summer is no exception to this rule, which occurred as East Africa faced one its worst droughts in 60 years, precipitated by dangerously low rainfall, depleting food supplies, and rising prices of basic necessities like grains and milk. But droughts and food shortages do not by extension lead to famines, which the United Nations conservatively will only declare when “acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 percent, more than 2 people per 10,000 die per day and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.” While food shortages are, perhaps, necessary for famine, they are not sufficient. In today’s world starvation is the product of not only biological and economic forces, but political ones, too.

The draught was not confined to Somalia. In fact, food shortages are plaguing the entire Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea. American officials estimate that across the region, more than 10 million people need emergency rations to survive. But the UN has declared the catastrophe an official famine in only two areas southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, both are in southern Somalia, both are controlled by the lethal militant group, al-Shabab. There are reasons for this.

Al-Shabab did not cause the draught, but it is in large part responsible for the country and world’s inability to mitigate the damage of food shortages through aid. Al-Shabab, bound together by fundamentalist Islam and a desire to topple Somalia’s transitional government, has decried aid workers as “infidels” and openly attacks aid workers in its controlled territory. The group was responsible for 20 humanitarian deaths in 2008 alone. Needless to say, this hostile environment poses a significant obstacle to humanitarian efforts to relieve starvation in southern Somalia.

There are three major options for humanitarians looking to send food supplies to southern Somalia and each is less appealing than the last. First, they can send crates by truck or rail into Nairobi, the capital of Somalia’s neighbor to the south, Kenya, and then bravely truck the food across the boarder. In this option, Kenya’s ubiquitous corruption stymies aid workers at every turn. The railroad is so poor, aid logicians avoid it; roads are riddled with potholes; bridges are unreinforced. Corrupt officials “tax” the aid at every turn.

Aid workers’ second choice is to ship food crates to Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, and the closest major port to southern Somalia. Mombasa’s notorious bureaucracy and painfully inefficient customs system makes the city a pressurized bottleneck for shipments. Food sits in shipping containers that take weeks to process, sitting in warehouses as thousands starve just a few hundred miles away. The last option for a point-of-entry is Mogadishu, the least cost-effective choice as food crates must be flown in by plane. The Mogadishu airport, by the way, is surrounded by members of al-Shabab with very large guns, who aren’t afraid to use them. And the city itself has been caught in a relentless salvo by groups that have fought for control without rest since 1991.

Fran Equiza, a regional director at Oxfam, has called the famine “a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility.” While I agree with the sentiment, I do not believe that the problem could have been solved with aid money and manpower. The political realities in Somalia make aid delivery difficult and perilous to the point of impossible.

With climate change, these draughts in East Africa will only become more frequent and more acute. The region—and the world—must prepare now to confront these challenges. Aid alone will not solve or control the problem. To effectively deal with these worsening conditions, we must confront endemic corruption, terrorism, and lawlessness. Somalia must develop an accountable, functioning central power that is capable of controlling its own security, even in remote areas. That sentence, though, is optimistic to the point of ludicrous and it seems all the more unlikely given that a large part of its population is in a struggle for their lives. Unfortunately, options are limited in this failed state.

This year, on October 6th and 7th , the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development will host their annual conference. This year’s conference, which will be held in Paris, is titled “Tackling the Shadow Financial System: A Working Plan for the G20.” The topic Illicit Financial Flows and Inequality: A Human Rights Imperative will be the subject of one of the breakout panels.

* Image license: Some rights reserved by United Nations Photo

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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