Better US response to Somalia famine could fix misperceptions
US restrictions on aid for Somalia famine, although well-intentioned, are severely hindering relief efforts. International Crisis Groups says that lifting them would improve Somali opinions of the US.
Two years of poor rainfall, insecurity and rising world food prices have led to a devastating food security emergency in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and probably Eritrea. Somalia is the epicenter of the regional crisis, and without massive food, nutrition and livelihood interventions, the famine is likely to continue spreading. The death rate will be compounded by seasonal rains that will spread disease among the already severely weakened population. Elderly people and children are worst hit. The UN warns that 750,000 could die by December. To prevent this from happening, the international community must increase humanitarian assistance efforts, removing all remaining barriers to aid, and support longer-term efforts to promote peace and stability.Skip to next paragraph
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This disaster has been long in the making. There has been a gradual breakdown in traditional coping mechanisms, as years of violence and instability have hugely impacted on food production and food security in the fertile pockets of the south. Agriculture, and subsistence farming in particular, has been steadily on the decline over the last two decades. Lack of investment, land degradation, climate change, and conflict are the primary causes.
But the problem is not really that there is no food in Somalia, but that the landless and the urban poor simply cannot afford it. Many of those who have perished or who are now fleeing come from Somalia’s huge underclass – the impoverished remote peasant farming communities or agro-pastoralists, historically despised and marginalised. They are not the beneficiaries of the boom in remittances from overseas Somalis, so unlike some others, they lack money to buy food.
The current humanitarian response is not adequate, and most aid delivery is concentrated in the capital, Mogadishu, where it has overwhelmed the inefficient distribution system, partially managed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Many complain that relief items are piling up in warehouses, TFG bureaucracy is clogging up the delivery system, and corruption is rife. The continued ineffectiveness of the TFG, as well as attempts by local actors to manipulate and profit from humanitarian aid delivery, are greatly complicating assistance efforts in Mogadishu and neighboring Afgooye Corridor (where many of the internally displaced can be found).
It has been even more difficult to reach other affected populations in Al Shabab-controlled territory in south and central Somalia due to lack of international partners, logistical constraints and problems created by some elements within the Islamist insurgent group. Most donors and agencies have announced they would return if there are guarantees that their operations will not be “taxed” and food will not be diverted. However, it is highly unrealistic that some aid will not be diverted or inadvertently end up assisting people affiliated with Al Shabab, so organizations risk running afoul of US and UN restrictions.
An August decision by the Obama administration eased US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) restrictions for American implementing partners, but aid organizations remain worried that they could nonetheless violate US legal restrictions or become targets of partisan politics. Because of this, many organizations are sitting on the sidelines rather than providing desperately needed assistance to starving people.