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Somalia famine: Lessons we can take away

Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus spoke with a guest blogger from the Enough Project about what policies need to change for a durable solution to the famine.

By Laura HeatonEnough Project / August 9, 2011

A Somali woman from southern Somalia and her children prepare leafy vegetables to cook at a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia on Aug. 9.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP


Enough spoke with eminent Somalia expert and political science professor Ken Menkhaus about what’s behind the famine sweeping East Africa and lessons that we should take away from the crisis.

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The famine in the Horn of Africa was spurred by a drought, but there are plenty of manmade triggers of the current crisis. Can you pinpoint the most responsible?

MENKHAUS: This is a part of the world that is more susceptible to extreme variations in seasonal rainfall than almost anywhere in the world. One in every five years there is an extreme drought; one in every five years there is an extreme flood. Historically, local populations have developed pretty elaborate coping mechanisms. But those coping mechanisms have been overloaded in recent decades by a wide range of factors, which have disrupted the old coping mechanisms that populations used to have. Previously, people would suffer during these years of extremes, but they would usually survive. Now that’s broken, particularly in Somalia.

So what we’ve got is the worst drought in 60 years, combined with 1.4 million Somalis internally displaced by years of warfare. As we all know, internally displaced people are always the most vulnerable because they’ve lost their livelihoods and their support system at home. And this has all been unfolding in the context of a perfect storm for food insecurity globally: We have a spike in fuel prices and food prices. A big part of the crisis in Somalia is not just that people used to be able to farm for subsistence and now can’t; there are lots of people whose purchasing power has been badly eroded. There is food on the market in much of Somalia, but people can’t afford it.

Another element of this perfect storm is the suspension of food aid to southern Somalia (the area controlled by the militant group al-Shabaab) for two years. Somalia hasn’t been self-sufficient since the early 1970s. But aid delivery has been suspended in recent years for three main reasons: Insecurity – In 2008 a third of all casualties worldwide occurred in Somalia, so aid groups started pulling out because they couldn’t justify the risk. Second, the U.S. government’s suspension of aid due to counterterrorism grounds; allowing aid to reach Shabaab was a violation of the Patriot Act. Third was Shabaab’s ban on most international agencies from working in the areas it controlled, accusing them of being spies and of trying to put Somali farmers out of business. We heard good news this week on a shift in US policy to legally protect NGOs from being prosecuted under the Patriot Act. But that third bottleneck is still unresolved. As long as Shabaab continues blocking food aid, we’re limited in what we can do.

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