New Internationalist

Who is to blame for the Somali famine?

October 2011

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

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

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.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 446 This feature was published in the October 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Never miss another story! Get our FREE fortnightly eNews

Comments on Who is to blame for the Somali famine?

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Agenda

All Agenda

Popular tags

All tags

This article was originally published in issue 446

New Internationalist Magazine issue 446
Issue 446

More articles from this issue

  • Interview with David Randall

    October 1, 2011

    The Faithless guitarist tells Giedre Steikunaite why all music is political.

  • Film review: Tomboy

    October 1, 2011

    Director Céline Sciamma doesn't shy away from harsh realities, yet Tomboy is still a trusting gem of a film.

  • Peru's dam busters

    October 1, 2011

    Vanessa Baird discovers why the Asháninka people of the River Ene are taking a hard line against dam builders – and others.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.