International groups accelerate effort to relieve East Africa's famine

The first UN plane in two years is scheduled to go into the Somali capital's airport Wednesday carrying food aid. Some 3.7 million people in Somalia alone need help.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
A newly arrived refugee girl walks into the Baley settlement near the Ifo extension refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, Wednesday. The first in a series of UN famine relief flights is scheduled to land in Somalia’s capital Wednesday.

The first in a series of food flights is due to land in Somalia’s capital late Wednesday, bringing 10 tons of supplies specially formulated to save children from starving to death. The airlift is one of several signs of an acceleration in the international relief effort to help people suffering after two years of drought spread across southern Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya.

The chartered aircraft will be the first United Nations plane into Mogadishu’s international airport since Islamists banned the organization from working there two years ago. It is loaded with Plumpy’nut, a patented high-nutrition, peanut-based paste designed to help children so malnourished that it is often too late for ordinary food to make any difference.

More than 2.3 million children under age 5 – and another 9 million-plus east Africans – are in urgent need of food and water as two years of drought has killed off their livestock and left them unable to cope.

After three weeks of daily appeals for help, the United Nations said on Wednesday that $800 million had been pledged for its Horn of Africa crisis fund. But that still leaves more than $1.1 billion needed, according to figures from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The situation is desperate in Somalia, where 3.7 million people need help and almost 300,000 live in two areas officially said to be suffering famine rather than just a hunger crisis, the UN’s refugee agency said.

“Given the growing numbers of displaced people in search of food assistance, the amounts being delivered are not sufficient to meet all of the needs,” spokeswoman Vivian Tan said. “This has caused serious crowd crushes and even some looting. As a result, some of the weakest and most vulnerable are left with nothing, despite the best efforts of agencies and charities.”

Talking to the Islamists

Negotiations are still going on between Western humanitarian organizations and Al Shabab, the pro-Al Qaeda Islamists who today rule most of Somalia’s south. They have refused access to several UN agencies and international charities to the territory they control, which includes the two famine zones.

Smart thinking is already being deployed to get help where it is needed while side-stepping the Islamists' restrictions.

Aid agencies from Islamic countries are being allowed more access, especially Red Crescent societies, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made a series of personal telephone calls to Arab leaders to ask for more help. Mr. Ban's spokesman said Wednesday that conversations with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates produced “positive responses.”

But the demand for help is still urgent, aid workers stressed. Food convoys are en route to Dadaab, the Kenyan refugee camp now hosting almost 400,000 Somalis who have fled war and now drought. In Ethiopia, a new set of refugee centers is being opened to cope with the 2,000 people a day streaming in from over the border with Somalia.

A meeting on Monday in Rome, organized by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, was billed as aiming to focus world leaders’ attention on the drought. But that was still too little, too late, says Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive.

“Rich governments and donors are engaged in an exercise of collective amnesia on a colossal scale,” she says. “They knew that this catastrophe was preventable. Donors must break the current cycle of emergency response, which leaves donors and affected communities limping from one crisis to the next, by addressing the long-term problems that make people vulnerable in the first place.”

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