The largest famine in decades hits Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya… why?

While US newpapers have been infatuated with hourly stock price fluctuations, the press has almost totally ignored the start of the biggest famine in decades—a humanitarian crisis larger in scale than the Japanese tsunami and Haiti’s earthquake. In this post, we take a look at the available data on the emerging famine in the Horn of Africa, and its drivers.

Another famine in Somalia?

We recently discussed the causes and scale of the ongoing international food price crisis. The cost of basic cereals have increased 135% in one year. In the Horn of Africa, aid has dried up while at least 10 million people across Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya are being affected by shortages this month – five times as many as were affected by the natural disasters in Pakistan, Haiti and East Asia. In some areas, malnutrition is affecting over 30% of children. As a result, many are fleeing the hardest-hit areas to migrate across borders in search of food—and to escape conflict.

About 1.5 million people have fled Somalia over the past several years. Dadaab, the Kenyan refugee camp across Somalia’s border, was designed for 90,000 people; now at 400,000, and with 10,000 new arrivals per day, it is overtaking Kisumu as Kenya’s third largest “city”.

Part of the problem with gaining information about this famine is that foreign journalists have limited access to southern Somalia, where the hardest hit areas are located. The region is essentially controlled by the al-Shabab Islamist militia, whose leadership is affiliated to al-Qaida, and who regularly participate in kidnapping and assassinations alongside other private splinter armies. The aid activity that is ongoing in the region is based through local staff working in isolation, often unassisted by international colleagues who can’t reach the neediest places. But relief efforts are being hampered as much by delays in procuring food aid and raising funds as by difficulties in accessing Islamist-controlled areas, according to humanitarian organisations working there.

Drivers of the famine

The famine early warning systems network advised governments and aid agencies last October that two seasons of drought, combined with the international spike in food prices, would likely result in famine. They were mostly ignored.

But to blame the start of this famine on drought (and its climate change precipitant) or short-term recession politics would be to ignore the real history of the situation. Southern Somalia is actually an agricultural zone; it has produced more produce than areas of Kenya and Ethiopia that are not suffering as badly from this famine. But the region’s people cannot reach available food, and the agricultural zone has been drying up as a result of diminished farming investments. The famous theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen—that famines do not occur in functioning democracies—still holds true.

In 1959, Somalia gained independence through the fusion of an Italian colony in the South and a British colony in the North. The United States and Britain were training militaries in Ethiopia, Kenya and Eritrea, providing support for nascent African governments in exchange for cheap trading terms on resources like coffee, shipped back to Western Europe and North America. Somalia, by contrast, was moving more radically towards independence from Western powers, and had a strong anti-Western political contingent. Under the influence of civilians with Marxist ideas, a coup d’état was led by officers in 1969 and Siad Barre took power in Somalia, aligning the country politically towards the Soviet Union and China.

This event escalated Cold War politics, as Somalia was a major economic and strategic location. Half of the world’s container traffic and 70% of petroleum products pass through the Indian Ocean next to Somalia’s coast line, the longest coast of Africa and the trade route through the Arabian Gulf. The country also contains vast oil reserves. Following the internal coup, Henry Kissinger turned up in Mogadishu. The US funded the Ethiopian army to invade, which failed and resulted in internal chaos. The US later launched Operation Restore Hope, in which marines intervened to take control of the country. This attempt also failed (as depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down”), and small warlords began breaking the region into fiefdoms until the Islamic Court Union (ICU), a group of Muslim clerics, attempted to start a unity government. They were fought by US-funded Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism in the Second Battle of Mogadishu; again the US funded the Ethiopian Army to invade Somalia in a series of battles known as the War in Somalia. Although the Ethiopians were defeated, internal damage in Somalia led to further splintering of political coalitions, and more radical strains of religious militancy that undermined opportunities for democratic elections.

Since then, no single unified government has been able to maintain control of the country. With no functioning government in two decades, the country’s infrastructure has rotted away, and the development of a social welfare system or even an international aid delivery structure has been minimal compared with neighboring states. Out of the remnants of the ICU rose the far more extreme al-Shabaab militia, which now controls most of southern Somalia.

In 2009, aid agencies including the World Food Program were expelled by militants, and the linkage of militant groups to terrorism meant that the US significantly cut its funding to the country. This was followed by drought, conflict between the Islamists and other militias, and accumulated debts among small farmers who had minimal profits from a poor harvest. While enough grain was in reserves to last until April, a second round of poor rainfall started the worst drought in the region in 36 years.

In the absence of effective government, a black market has now appeared; food imports are exchanging hands, with a sharp mark-ups at each stage of informal trade. The goods reaching al-Shabaab areas are three or four times their typical cost, and there is no government safety net system to buffer citizens.

Level of aid

The UN has estimated it needs $2.5 billion now to manage the acute phase of the crisis; at present it has $1.5 billion.

Donations from Western governments are about 13 times smaller than initial donations to the Haiti earthquake and 44 times smaller than those made to Japan after their tsunami, which affected two million people.

The data on current levels of aid to the Horn of Africa, by source and area of need, is available here as an open Google Spreadsheet (thanks to the Guardian’s Datablog for this information). One caveat to this data is that Ethiopia is “a crisis without an appeal”. Unlike Kenya and Somalia, the politics of the situation have meant that there is no published inter-agency appeal for funding for Ethiopia, so it is not possible to track humanitarian aid requirements or funding for Ethiopia systematically to date in the same manner as aid to Somalia or Kenya.

As the situation continues to evolve (and maybe, when we can find a US newspaper that bothers to publish the story), we’ll keep the latest data and information updated on this site. Meanwhile, while hedge funds are increasingly implicated in generating the food price spike, The New York Times assures us that conspicuous consumption is back in fashion on Wall Street:

4 responses to “The largest famine in decades hits Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya… why?

  1. Pingback: Shifts in humanitarian aid: a look at post-recession data | [ EpiAnalysis ]

  2. Pingback: Shifts in Humanitarian Aid: A Look at Post-Recession Data | The Health Care Blog

  3. Pingback: Should we propose a global nutrition treaty? | [ EpiAnalysis ]

  4. Pingback: Should We Propose A Global Nutrition Treaty? | The Health Care Blog

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