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Who is to blame for the Somali famine?


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

Ho New / Reuters

In a world of plenty, famine is a very serious thing. It shouldn’t happen in the 21st century, but it is happening in Somalia. In simple terms, famine is declared when there is evidence of acute malnutrition affecting more than 30 per cent of children. In some parts of Somalia, levels have reached 50 per cent.

Drought conditions tipped vulnerable people into the shocking predicament the world has witnessed over the past few months, forcing them to leave the meagre comfort of their homes to search for help and to face the awful choice of leaving weaker children behind to save the stronger ones. But the reasons that no assistance was to hand were political rather than climatic.

The loudest voices blame Al Shabab, the radical anti-Western group that controls much of southern Somalia. Its suspicion of the West and its attacks on aid workers made access for UN and other Western humanitarian agencies well nigh impossible.

Others blame the US government for having passed legislation to stop any of its assistance reaching areas held by Al Shabab. This intimidated aid agencies, which feared that any humanitarian assistance could be seen as ‘support for terrorists’.

Still others say the famine represents a failure of the UN system brought about by the politicization of aid. The World Food Programme stopped its support to the most vulnerable people in southern Somalia just when they needed it most.

As starving people turned up in their thousands, filling makeshift camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and the Somali capital, Mogadishu, those responsible started to squirm and to cover up their part in the crisis. Al Shabab now declared that it would let aid in. Its leaders claimed they had no objection to the delivery of humanitarian assistance provided it came without a political agenda. The US government provided a ‘clarification’ to say that humanitarian agencies had no need to fear prosecution if they delivered assistance to needy people under Al Shabab’s control. The World Food Programme said that all it lacked were the funds to allow it to operate.

The famine in Somalia represents a collective failure of the international community to uphold one simple principle. This is that humanitarian assistance – the type of assistance that the poorest people need to avert starvation in a drought – should have no political strings attached. In an environment as fragmented and dangerous and highly politicized as Somalia, the only agencies that were able to carry on their work were those such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent that insisted on the principle of impartiality and stuck to a mandate of giving help to the needy. The politicization of humanitarian aid, by Al Shabab and by Western governments, is the cause of this famine. The poorest and youngest people in Somalia are paying the price.

Sally Healy is an Associate Fellow of the African Programme at Chatham House in the UK and leads their Horn of Africa programme.

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