Famine in Somalia: It’s the Politics…stupid – By Richard Dowden

“Here we go again”. These words should have been heard in November last year. Not since. That’s when the drought early warning lights flashed in Eastern Africa. No one should be saying it now. But now we are seeing pictures of starving Somali babies – pictures that we were promised we would never see again.

The aid agencies are out with their begging bowls as if this had never happened before. To be fair, some of the best have been issuing alerts for some time based on the early warning systems which measure rainfall and food prices. They were put in place after the Ethiopian famine of 1984. The alarm sounded in 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008 and each time the response arrived, but often late.

Drought can cause food shortages and price rises. But drought does not automatically mean famine. Famine is cause by politics – when war or governments prevent people moving or trading. And politics in this region are deadly and remain deadlocked. If we want to stop seeing starving Somali babies on our TV screens our governments will have to engage with al-Shabaab. America refuses to do that because it means abandoning the present Somali ‘government’. This is a powerless collection of individuals who live mostly in Nairobi, control less than a square mile of Somali territory, and has achieved nothing.

The rest of the world must deal with Somalia as it is – a fractious society and a fractured state. Somalis will probably never agree on a single leader, a single party, or a single government. Since 1991, attempts to create a national government from the outside have failed again and again. Let the pieces of Somalia fall where they will, and engage with them locally, generously and pragmatically.

There are shortages but no famine in the Ethiopian Highlands, Somaliland, or in Puntland, the north eastern part of Somalia. That is because people are able to move around and the governments ensure trade continues and food reaches those who need it. Famine seems to have only occurred in Southern Somalia where a failed government pretends to rule but al-Shabaab actually controls. Kenya compounds the problem by refusing to let people cross into northern Kenya.

But what is happening in the Ogaden, the Ethiopian lowlands? Almost entirely populated by Somalis, it has been fenced off and closed to outsiders for years because Ethiopia fears it might be infiltrated by anti-Ethiopian insurgents. Atrocities by Ethiopian troops are reported but cannot be verified. If the rest of the region is suffering, the closed Ogaden may be hiding an even larger disaster.

The Corrupt Bookseller of Juba

I am much more shocked to learn of Macmillan’s corruption than that of British Aerospace. One has the air of a venerable old bookseller involved in global education, the other is an arms manufacturer which profits from war. Both have admitted to paying millions in bribes to gain contracts in Africa. No doubt they called them ‘facilitation fees’ or some such euphemism. But Macmillan’s scam was in pre-independent South Sudan. It is somehow particularly distasteful to see a British company spreading its corruption in a country not yet born. It also means that any British minister, company or NGO which tries to lecture Africa on corruption can now be rightly told: “Physician, heal thyself!”

Little Britain drives away its friends

If you wanted to set up an organisation to alienate as many of Britain’s friends in the world as you could, you could not do better than the UK Border Agency, the Home Office organisation which controls visas to Britain. We hear so many horror stories at RAS that I have come to believe that the UK Border Agency’s secret mission is to wreck all relations between Britain and Africa. Here’s their latest effort:
The Africa Educational Trust, a small but smart organisation that delivers education to parts of Africa that are in difficulties, is trying to bring over a student from South Sudan to start post graduate studies at Warwick University in September.  He has been accepted and he has a full scholarship – all costs covered by AET from a programme paid for by South Sudan Government with British aid.

But he has a Canadian passport. He cannot apply for a visa in South Sudan so he went to Nairobi. There the Border Agency says he has to go to Canada to get a visa. Naturally he went to the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi but was told there was nothing they could do. So he went back to Juba and asked the UK office – not yet an embassy then. He was told he has to fly to Canada and apply there. So – on our taxes – he will have to fly from Juba to Nairobi to Heathrow to Ottawa, wait for his visa to be granted, then come back through Heathrow to Nairobi and get home to South Sudan. Then in September he will fly to Heathrow and actually be allowed to enter the country. Now I call that a really good use of British aid.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society

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12 thoughts on “Famine in Somalia: It’s the Politics…stupid – By Richard Dowden

  1. Pingback: The over-simplified narrative of the Somali famine. « a peace of conflict

  2. As Richard Dowden says, drought does not necessarily lead to famine. Famine occurs when politics obstructs people’s own capacity to manage local shortage by movement and trade, or leads to a failure to provide the necessary external assistance. In Somalia, where there is war, large areas are controlled by al-Shabaab, western donors are reluctant to supply aid for fear that this may strengthen al-Shabaab and the Ethiopian Government has closed the Ogaden. It would therefore be expected that both people’s ability to cope with crisis and the provision of aid would be compromised. However, tempting as it is to attribute famine to political factors alone the question remains as to whether the international relief system could have done better. In recent years famine has also occurred in Niger and in Malawi under conditions where there were much lesser political and operational constraints.

    The question revolves around the problem of early warning.

    There is now huge experience of the requirements for effective early warning. This experience suggests that an effective early warning system must be capable of convincing – often non-technical – donors that providing aid is the best course of action. This requires a clear narrative which connects cause and impact and a quantitative estimate of needs i.e. drought will impact this proportion (typically the poorest) of the population in this place for these reasons. A a consequence of this, the affected group will require this much food (it is rare for people to have no income even in drought); they will need food by this time (famine tends to be seasonal) and these are the likely consequences (migration, death) if aid is not provided. Statements such as the need for ‘massive aid’ or that 10 million people are ‘at risk of starvation’ are operationally meaningless.

    Systems which can meet these requirements, and have now been widely adopted by Governments in southern Africa and elsewhere, use a modelling technique based on a detailed understanding of household economy and have regularly proved effective e.g. in heading off famine in Malawi in 2005/ 2006. The Somalia assessments are based on the ‘Integrated Phase Classification’ (IPC) – a so called ‘indicator system’ – which describes current conditions but does not provide a logical basis for prediction or provide the operational detail required. The IPC classifies situations e.g. (‘ Acute Food and Livelihood Crisis’; ‘Humanitarian Emergency ‘) as these deteriorate and up to the point of famine, defined as a situation where 30% of children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition; at least 20% of households face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope and crude death rates exceeding 2/10,000/day. These thresholds are far from universally accepted, and many find them unacceptable e.g. does it mean that the (disgraceful) situation where 28% of children are malnourished is not a famine?

    In March 2011 the UN early warning system the Food Security and Nutrition Assessment Unit (FSNAU) issued a report (Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Post Deyr 2010/11 Technical Series Report No VI. 36 March 4, 2011) describing appalling conditions in parts of southern Somalia (duly classified by the IPC as ‘emergency’) and detailing the numbers of people in need of aid, but made no clear projection. FEWSNET also issued reports describing worsening conditions and attempted a limited projection, but did not provide the detail required.

    The first UN appeal appears to have been in July and to have been a declaration of famine.

    This not an arcane methodological point. It marks a distinction between a view of famine as an occasional, now largely avoidable consequence of drought, price and other ‘shocks.’ This is the view that, in general, the real purpose of early warning is not to avoid starvation, but to pre-empt famine by maintaining supply and price conditions so that people do not have to destitute themselves to get food. The view still current in humanitarian circles is that famine is an unavoidable outcome of poverty and war, and that the technical job is to spot it when it occurs, launch appeals and provide food aid and other humanitarian relief.

    In the Somalia case it seems unlikely that the current crisis could have been entirely avoided. However, a clear prediction in March of how events were likely to unfold would at the least have allowed much more time for preparation.

    John Seaman, Evidence for Development

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