Shake off 'donor fatigue' to end famine in Somalia

The UN, for the first time in decades, had declared a famine alert. Millions in Somalia face starvation. The West cannot be stuck in its own woes.

In a rare declaration, the United Nations has officially alerted the world to a famine – one in need of an urgent response from both governments and individuals.

This rare declaration, issued today, was for two southern regions of Somalia, a country in the grips of not only a drought but also the Islamist militant group Al Shabab, which is linked to Al Qaeda.

In much of East Africa, more than 11 million people face severe shortages of food and water. The area is suffering its worst drought in 60 years.

Nearly half a million Somalia refugees have fled into Kenya and Ethiopia. In Somalia itself – a failed state – a similar number of malnourished children are now in extreme peril in Lower Shabelle and Bakool, the two famine-designated regions.

Mark Bowden, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, warned: “If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months.”

Yet governments have been slow to respond to the pleas of aid agencies for $600 million to $800 million to help curb mass starvation. Many countries, like the United States, are focused on their own financial woes, such as rising debt.

“Donor fatigue” comes more easily today than in the past, such as during the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine that killed 1 million people. That crisis triggered fundraising concerts by celebrity singers and two musical hits, “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Also today, wars like Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Great Recession have sapped public enthusiasm in the West to take on one more foreign crisis. Acting on compassion doesn’t extend much beyond one’s borders.

The world has also seen a rise in natural disasters, which often result in more destruction because of population growth. In the Horn of Africa, for example, the population has doubled in recent decades. Famine can now take a higher toll if not prevented early.

Complicating this UN alert is the fear aid workers have about delivering food and water in areas controlled by Al Shabab. Last year, the group threatened aid workers, stealing supplies or taxing goods. And the US has tied its own hands with rules that bar humanitarian aid if there is a risk of it “materially benefiting” militants.

In recent days, as the famine has worsened, both the US and Al Shabab have moved to soften their stance. The Islamists risk losing control over people fleeing their areas. And the US is working on loosening the antiterrorist aid rule for Somalia.

UN officials are asking governments to “dig deep” to help the region. Individuals, too, can give to a host of aid groups, or encourage elected officials to do more. Prayer is also needed.

With so many people starving, there is not a good time for “donor fatigue.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly stated that the last UN declaration of a famine was in 1984.)

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