New Internationalist books and publications

World Development book case study: famine in the Horn of Africa, August 2011

What is Famine?

‘Famine is the “triple failure” of (1) food production, (2) people’s ability to access food and, finally and, most crucially, (3) in the political response by governments and international donors.’ (Oxfam 2011)

The United Nations defines food security as the ability of the population of a country or region to access sufficient food to meet their needs and ensure active and healthy lives. It uses a five-step scale to assess the level of food security and the fifth stage is famine/humanitarian catastrophe. That stage is only reached when malnutrition rates are higher than 30%, more than two people out of ten thousand die each day and when food is limited to less than 2,100 calories a day per person.

UN Five Step Scale of Food Security

Phase 1 - generally food secure
Phase 2 - moderately/borderline food insecure
Phase 3 - acute food and livelihood crisis
Phase 4 - humanitarian emergency
Phase 5 - famine/humanitarian catastrophe

In late July the UN declared that two regions in Somalia, southern Bakool and southern Shabelle were experiencing famine and millions of other people in Kenya and Ethiopia were also threatened by the famine.

Causes of famine in the Horn of Africa, August 2011

Ho New / Reuters
Too little, too late? Children walk past an African Union Mission soldier from Uganda at a food distribution centre in Mogadishu. Ho New / Reuters

The causes of famine are rarely easy to define and are usually the result of the interaction of a number of factors. In Somalia, a two-year drought caused record food price inflation, with the price of red sorghum, a staple grain, increasing by 240% in a year. This was exacerbated by a harvest (2011) that is expected to be about half the normal size.

Many of the people in the affected region are pastoralists and the drought has killed huge numbers of the animals that the pastoralists depend upon for food and a source of income. In the worst-affected areas up to 90% of the animals have died. With rising food prices and a reduced source of income, families are in a desperate situation. Increasingly, though, it is farmers from the grain-growing areas of Somalia who are fleeing from the drought. It appears to be surprising because in 2010 the main rainy season was very good, and resulted in a bumper harvest. However the cumulative effects of drought in previous years and the internal conflict between the Islamists and other warring factions within the country quickly dissipated the food crop and prices rose very sharply. According to the UN FAO, farmers had used the profits from the harvest to pay off debts and kept enough grain to last until the new rains in April – which failed to arrive.

If persistent drought has dramatically reduced food production and rising food prices have made it impossible for many people to access the food supplies that are available, it is the total inability of Somalia’s government to implement poverty-reduction strategies and the failure of donor countries to invest properly in a region where there is barely any basic infrastructure and little governance that has turned the situation into a famine.

‘How can we have people dying like flies of hunger in 2011? It is so unacceptable. Famine is a Middle Ages issue.’
— Luca Alinovi, UN FAO, Nairobi

If you google ‘food shortages in East Africa’ the first entries listed will refer to the current famine but scroll down and you immediately become aware of the frequency of food shortages in the region. For many people, the first time they became conscious of this was 1985, when Michael Buerk produced a famous television report from a refugee camp in Ethiopia that evoked an unprecedented response in the Western world and eventually gave rise to Live Aid. An important outcome was a famine early warning system created by the US. The early warning system monitors many factors, including climate and food prices in local markets, and offers the opportunity to warn of problems long before they occur, allowing time for governments and policymakers to respond. The science has not meant the disappearance of food shortages from East Africa.

In all of the cases of food shortage since 1985 there have been difficult physical conditions – this is a largely arid region that frequently experiences long periods without rainfall. However, the other common factor has been conflict, which has prevented effective agriculture and agricultural development. That is certainly the case in Somalia today. No explanation for the current situation in Somalia can omit the US invasion of Somalia in December 1992. Some 28,000 US troops entered the country under a UN directive to bring humanitarian aid to starving people. Then-President George H Bush (father of George W) said in a televised address to the American people that the troops were ‘doing God’s work’. Many local people saw the US troops as invaders and there was constant fighting in populated urban areas. Over 10,000 Somalis died at the hands of US troops over the next 10 months, which culminated in the ‘Battle of Mogadishu’ where two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and dead US troops were displayed in the streets. By the following March, a humiliated US has withdrawn all of its troops from the country and left only UN troops to face a deteriorating situation.

US interest in the country was re-awakened after 9/11when Somalia was seen as a failed state that harbored Islamic militants. Over the last decade the US has supported an invasion by Ethiopian troops to displace a functioning broad-based Islamic government, resulting in increased conflict and instability. This not just a domestic conflict – it has its roots in the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nations.

With no government able to impose its influence for 20 years, the country's infrastructure has rotted away, and development assistance has been minimal compared with that to other countries. Warlords held sway until a few years ago when a broad-based Islamic movement known as the Islamic Courts Union took control of Mogadishu and quickly spread its influence. Ethiopia, backed by the US, invaded the country to oust the courts, which it accused of terror links. Out of the remnants of the ICU rose the far more extreme al-Shabaab militia, which now controls most of southern Somalia. The group, which is not homogenous, has links to al-Qaeda and is opposed to western influences.

In 2009, it started expelling aid agencies from its territory, including the World Food Programme, and those organizations that remained were unable to use expatriate staff because of the security risks. Furthermore, the terror links meant that the US, the world's biggest donor, was desperate not to allow any of its fund to get into al-Shabaab hands, so its aid funding to Somalia was significantly cut.

— Xan Rice, The Guardian, 8 August 2011

Climate Change?

There are some people who have cited climate change as a major cause of this famine. An examination of the climate of the Horn of Africa suggests that historically there has been an approximate 10-year cycle of severe drought. In the last 30 years drought has been happening far more frequently and since 2000 it has been virtually every year. Rainfall patterns have become less predictable and the area that receives between 500 and 600mm of rain a year (considered to be the minimum rainfall for sustainable agricultural production given the high temperatures experienced in the region) has shrunk considerably. Whether this is due to a natural variation in climate conditions or human-made climate change cannot be answered definitively but there are many who are convinced that the human impact on climate will make life much more difficult in regions like this.

‘We can’t say for sure that this is global warming, or part of a historical cycle, but there is definitely a change occurring,’
— Daniele de Bernardi, co-ordinator of the UN’s food security and nutrition working group in Nairobi.

Could the famine have been prevented?

Photo by Expert Infantry under a CC licence.

The governments of Somalia and Kenya and aid donors have been criticized for not reacting quickly enough to warnings about the impending food crisis that were first sent to governments and aid agencies in October 2010. Little was done until the crisis blew up after the April rains had clearly failed. Donors reacted too late and too cautiously. According to United Nations figures, $1 billion was required to meet immediate needs in the region and donors had committed less than $200 million, leaving an $800 million shortfall.

‘There is a disjunction between scientific observation and policymakers. People knew last year that things were not looking good, but the interpretation of these warnings never becomes part of consistent policy. We have to be more anticipatory and get away from this rapid-response strategy.’
Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College London

Some governments and aid organizations have blamed al-Shabaab for difficulties in getting food aid into Somalia and increasing the number of refugees. The Islamist rebel group, which controls most of the south of Somalia, including the main famine zones, has refused to lift the bans it has imposed on several humanitarian agencies over the past two years. One of the barred organizations is the World Food Programme, which usually leads drought responses. The inability of some organizations to gain access to the worst-affected areas has certainly been a factor in the worsening of the situation in the country but several other international aid groups, including Islamic Relief, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are operating across the al-Shabab-controlled zones, as are numerous Somali non-governmental organizations. These agencies claim that the major problem in responding to the crisis is the time it is taking to buy food abroad and to transport it to the worst-hit areas.

In the absence of effective government – the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is weak, bloated and deeply corrupt – Somalia has become the ultimate free market, and food imports shot up. These reached the al-Shabaab areas, but at three or four times the cost of sorghum, the imported rice and pasta were too expensive for many. With no government safety net, and little or no aid getting in, people started going hungry. Then hunger turned to starvation, and thousands of people left their homes each day, heading for refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia or Mogadishu – anywhere that food relief was available.

— Xan Rice, The Guardian, 8 August 2011

The dynamics of the famine are too complex to say that the famine could definitely have been prevented. Problems with food production, access to food and local and global political issues are all contributory factors and the causes of famine in the region deserve a consideration of much more evidence. Many of the refugees from Somalia have arrived at Dadaab Camp in northern Kenya.

Dadaab Camp

In August 2011 the population of Dadaab refugee camps (Dafaley, Ifo and Hagadera) was estimated at 400,000 with another 38,000 refugees waiting to be registered by the UN refugee agency. The size of its population makes it Kenya’s third-largest city and the world’s largest refugee settlement. The population is growing by an estimated 1,400 people a day and the rapid spread has a predictable negative impact on the environment. The location of the camp could hardly be worse. It is in an open arid area on the edge of the Ogaden desert 400 kilometres northeast of Nairobi.

The camp was originally opened in 1991 when the Somalis first fled from war and drought in their homeland and was designed for 90,000 refugees. As the intensity of civil war in Somalia increased and living in the country became more dangerous, the numbers increased dramatically. Around 130,000 refugees have reached the camp since the start of 2011. The scale of the refugee crisis has created tensions between the refugee agency and Kenyan government which has become increasingly concerned by the impact of the camp on the local community and the perceived threat from al-Qaida insurgents within Somalia. They have been reluctant to allow the opening of a new camp (Ifo 2) which was built in late 2010 to accommodate 40,000 people. The new camp has schools, toilets and water towers but the Kenyan government initially refused to allow it to be opened, fearing that it would make the camp more permanent. They wanted the Somali refugees to be cared for on Somali soil. [The Kenyan government eventually granted permission for the new site to be opened to refugees on 18 August 2011.]

The result has been the growth of a camp of tents and latrines that extends further and further away from water supplies and toilets and also away from protection and security. When the camps were first built, water could be reached by drilling a borehole 10 metres into the ground. Today, the boreholes have to be 200 metres deep to reach water as demand has lowered the water table; the situation is clearly unsustainable. Vegetation and tree cover has been drastically reduced in the region as refugees have to search wider and wider for firewood.

Some of the refugees have been living in the camp for 20 years and an economy has evolved that gives many people some form of employment. The camp causes resentment amongst local Kenyans who have also been affected by the drought and by decades of underdevelopment. They believe that the refugees receive better services from the aid agencies than they do and the single-storey brick houses built in Ifo2 are better than the houses of millions of poverty-stricken Kenyans.

Who are Al-Shabaab?

Al-Shabaab – meaning ‘The Youth’ in Arabic – are believed to be largest group among several Islamist and clan militias battling the transitional government in Somalia. The group was formerly the military wing of the deposed Islamic Court Union (ICU) that controlled much of central and southern Somalia in late 2006. However, they were forced out of Somalia by Ethiopian troops in support of the largely powerless UN-backed interim government.

The group refused to engage in the peace process that brought elements of the Islamic courts into the government. Sharif Ahmed, a former leader of the ICU, was sworn in as president of Somalia's government, but his former allies vowed to topple him, accusing him of betraying the country. 

Al-Shabaab is led by Muktar Ali Robow, also known as Abu Mansoor, who was previously the Islamic courts’ deputy defence secretary. Since Sharif's government took power, al-Shabaab has been waging a brutal war against Somalia’s government forces.


Although very little is known about the group, it is considered to be a well-organized, hierarchical organization. Among the group’s stated objectives is to implement its own strict interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia, in Somalia.

Al-Shabaab first emerged when they started fighting criminal gangs in Mogadishu, the capital, and later began targeting the city’s kidnapping rings, pitting the group directly against the clan leaders who profited from the rings.

It is believed that Adan Hashi Ayro, the group’s former military leader, and his fellow al-Shabaab patrons were trained in Afghanistan and built the group along the lines of the Taliban, which ruled in Kabul until 2001. Adan Hashi Ayro was killed in a US missile attack in May 2008.

Al-Shabaab is claimed to have links with al-Qaeda and is on the United States’ list of “terrorist organizations”. The FBI has expressed concern that the group may be expanding its reach and actively recruiting Western nationals to fight in Somalia and Ahmed has spoken repeatedly of an influx of foreign fighters fuelling the war.

No one knows for sure where al-Shabaab gets its financial and logistical support, but Eritrea and some Arab nations have been accused of funding the conflict. Asmara has repeatedly denied the claims.

Source: Al Jazeera