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Famine in the Horn of Africa: why the world is slow to respond

Millions of lives are at stake in the drought and famine in East Africa, but aid is hampered by security concerns in Somalia and donors surprised by the severity of the crisis.

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She notes, for example, that Somalia has been wracked by conflict and instability for more than two decades.

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One challenge for relief agencies is that much of Somalia is under the control of Al-Shabab, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremist organization. Not only does Al-Shabab deny that people are starving in the regions it controls, but until very recently it banned all relief agencies, including the World Food Program, claiming they are Western political influences.

The difficulty of getting food aid into Al-Shabab-controlled areas in southern Somalia is one reason more than 100,000 refugees have fled the south. As many as 1,000 internally displaced arrive in the capital of Mogadishu every day – even though it is torn by conflict and bereft of services.

The weak Somali government hardly controls Mogadishu, let alone other areas of the country, a major reason why international relief agencies and nongovernmental organizations are extremely cautious about operations in Somalia.

One statistic underscores the challenge of delivering international aid in a country where the central government barely exists and the organization controlling much of the famine-plagued areas is violently hostile to outside assistance: Since 2008, 14 World Food Program aid workers have been killed in Somalia.

Oxfam’s Araia emphasizes that her organization is apolitical and does not comment on a country’s internal conflicts. However she does note that Oxfam does not itself operate in Somalia, instead working through local partner organizations.

The United States has drastically reduced assistance to Somalia in recent years, as the lack of a functioning central government and the spreading influence of Al-Shabab have made foreign aid increasingly problematic.

“We were once Somalia’s largest donor but have reduced that funding by 88 percent in two years, dropping from $237 million in 2008 to only $28 million in 2010,” notes Rep. Mike Honda (D) of California, co-chair of the congressional Progressive Caucus’s peace and security task force.

Oxfam’s Araia say the US has actually been one of the top food assistance donors for the region, having donated $400 million before coming up with an additional $28 million just last week in response to the current crisis. She also says the US was one of the earliest donors, responding with drought intervention aid as early as last fall after an early-warning system pointed to worsening drought conditions.

Still, despite the World Bank’s announcement of $500 million in food aid Monday, and other donations from Canada and Australia, Araia estimates that assistance for the coming year is still about $1 billion short – making the cancellation of the donors’ conference all the more worrisome, she adds.

With climate change likely to leave the Horn of Africa with increasingly frequent “cyclical droughts,” a growing number of interested parties say planning beyond emergency assistance will become essential.

Noting that “a food aid fix is no long-term solution,” Representative Honda says “the right thing to do going forward is to invest in local Somali solutions and to ensure Somali society is sustainable and strong.”

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