Five things to know about the food crisis in the Horn of Africa
Nearly half a million children in the Horn of Africa are at risk of dying from malnutrition and disease.
July 26th, 2011
12:47 PM ET

Five things to know about the food crisis in the Horn of Africa

Editor's Note: EJ Hogendoorn is the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group and Ben Dalton is a communications & IT officer.

By EJ Hogendoorn and Ben Dalton – Special to CNN

Famine has returned to the Horn of Africa, and Somalia is the worst hit. For the first time since the early 90s, the United Nations has declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, meaning that more than 30 percent of the population is malnourished. All told, 3.7 million Somalis are in need of immediate food aid, part of some 11.5 million in need across the Horn of Africa. Each month, huge streams of refugees cross the border into Ethiopia and Kenya–nearly 170,000 since January–spreading the humanitarian crisis with them. Tens of thousands have already died. 

At fault are three big factors. First, rainfall has been sparse for the past two years, causing widespread crop failures and depletion of food reserves. Second, food prices worldwide have skyrocketed, so the shortfall in produce among the poor cannot be made up in trade and imports. Finally, chronic insecurity in southern Somalia has exacerbated the situation. Much of southern Somalia is controlled by Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group at war with the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government. Al-Shabaab has also prevented many international agencies from distributing food aid to affected areas.

It is only a matter of time before famine is declared in much of south Somalia. Somalia is at the center of the emergency, but much of the Horn of Africa is at risk. If humanitarian relief does not reach people in southern Somalia immediately, further refugee flows could undermine food security in neighboring countries.

The international community has to act –and act fast - to stop the growing crisis. As the U.S. and other governments consider their options, here are five things to keep in mind.

1. Don’t let Al-Shabaab deny your humanitarian impulse. The U.S. government has voiced concern that assistance to Somalia could end up in the hands of Al-Shabaab, a designated terrorist organization. As a result, in 2010, U.S. aid to Somalia dropped to just one tenth of what it was two years before. It is true that armed groups were “taxing” humanitarian aid, but this is unavoidable in complex emergencies. Whatever marginal benefit Al-Shabaab derives from foreign aid, it is far outweighed by the goodwill and increased stability that aid generates. This is also an important way to show Somalis and the Muslim world at large that the West cares about more than waging a “War on Terror”.

2. Instead, think of this as an opportunity. Al-Shabaab is not a monolithic organization. It includes both hardliners and pragmatists. In July, the organization made two statements, one appealing for a return of international humanitarian agencies and the other claiming that any news of famine was “sheer propaganda.” Boosting international aid may help to woo those members willing to renounce terrorism away from the increasingly unpopular hardliners.

3. That said, international efforts must work together. Attempts to stabilize Somalia must be coordinated and carefully managed. Reporting from Somalia suggests that much internal displacement is directly attributable to military campaigns by the internationally funded Transitional Federal Government. As much as possible, the military push against Al-Shabaab should not aggravate an already poor humanitarian situation. Aid should also not empower re-emerging warlords.

4. The best way to prevent famines over the long-term is to foster peace and stability. It’s no surprise that the crisis is much less serious in Somaliland and Puntland, autonomous regions in northern Somalia that have been relatively stable. Immediate, short-term food aid must be followed by longer-term efforts to promote stability and good governance. That means looking beyond the narrow focus of defeating Al-Shabaab. Given a corrupt and ineffective Transitional Federal Government, international donors should not focus exclusively on the central government in Mogadishu, but also support stable, responsive and accountable local authorities. Because of longstanding clan competition and mistrust, a decentralized form of government is much more appropriate in the current Somali environment.

5. Even if governments don’t launch a full-scale relief program, they can still help. For instance, the U.S. should temporarily lift Office of Foreign Asset Control restrictions, which prevent aid groups from operating in areas “controlled” by Al-Shabaab.

The international response to famine is typically presented as a humanitarian mission. While that alone more than justifies international involvement, governments should also consider that food aid in Somalia and the Horn of Africa is strategic - that it can change negative perceptions about the West and reduce insecurity in the whole region. They should get moving.

The views expressed in this piece are solely those of EJ Hogendoorn and Ben Dalton.

Post by: ,
Topics: Crisis • Famine • Food

soundoff (120 Responses)
  1. bubba

    Continue to send aid to an area that cannot sustain the current population does nothing but prolong the crisis – the area cannot support the number of people that call it home. Just like deer herds, starvation is one of nature's way of balancing the species with the environment. No doubt, it is a sad, sad situation – but to prolong suffering through food drops with no solution in sight seems insane. To prolong the suffering of millions is inhumane. I will not donate one cent to such a cause.

    July 27, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Reply
  2. Dave

    Interesting.... has anyone considered how much of our total National budget goes toward foreign aid? It's a very small amount when compared with spending for domestic issues. A whole heck of a lot less than we spend on weapons creation, or medical research, or student aid, or a whole host of other things. The wars have cost us a great deal, yes. Foreign aid however (and I do specifically mean AID) is a very small percentage of our spending. Very small indeed. Eliminating our foreign aid in total would not even come close to getting us out of this budget crisis.

    Not saying we need to give more or less, just that we don't spend a huge amount as it is.

    July 27, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Reply
  3. josh

    I feel for them folks in Africa but I got my own kids to feed and worry about.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  4. wp

    Before you want our country to get involved in this remember October 3, 1993. We have been there, done that and they still wanted to kill us.

    July 27, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Reply
    • Pavla

      imd1urlkn4 on February 9, 2011 rlealy beautiful, an inspiration. Practically speaking, how much money can you make something like in a residential area?. Question mark

      February 12, 2012 at 12:08 am | Reply
  5. sapsxy

    time to let the african problems die out on their own; enough of trying to fix their problems,they are too dam
    slow to evolve; all they do is fight amongst themselves for decades on end,oh well,let the whole continent
    die out !!! who gives "f'.I dont anymore!!!

    July 28, 2011 at 2:29 am | Reply
    • Katie

      I agree.

      July 28, 2011 at 7:07 am | Reply
  6. jake

    there are plenty of hungry people in the US. Let's feed our own rather than worrying about those who drug our dead soldiers through the streets. It was not just the militia who attacked our troops in Somalia, women and children helped. Before sending a dime to help Somalia- EVERYONE should be required to understand how the Somalians mutilated the corpses of our soldiers- who were there to help FEED them.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:41 am | Reply
  7. Katie

    Um, these people have been surviving for thousands of years–why is there a problem now?? Nature will take it's course. America can't save everyone, we can't even take care of ourselves properly. We should get off of our high horse, we're NOT all that.

    July 28, 2011 at 7:06 am | Reply
  8. Salvado

    They killed 18 of our soldiers They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.They killed 18 of our soldiers.

    I am sorry as hell that they are starving but that's how they thanks us the last time we tried to help. Also, Black Hawk Down was a huge hit in Somalia when it came out. The movie theatres in Somalia were packed and people waited for hours to see the movie. And they cheered at the movie; they cheered each time a U.S. Soldier was killed.

    NO WAY LET THEM ALL STARVE TO DEATH!!

    July 28, 2011 at 9:05 am | Reply
  9. Rick

    Stop wasting our money and sending these people food, here is the deal, i'm so sick of hearing about the "starving" kinds in Africa, give me a break. If i can't take care of my child here I GO TO JAIL...... I say stop sending these 3rd world, fly infested, disease ridden horrible countries food and start sending them COMDOMS!!!!!! Hell of alot cheaper or birth control for the women, its obviously there going to keep popping out babies when they shoudln't so lets do something about that. How can we allow natural selection to work if we keep pouring mine and your tax dollars into these ridiculious countries.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:10 am | Reply
    • Erika

      Why don't you just say what you mean Rick? Are you afraid of your own disgusting racism? Why not just say it outright what you mean by natural selection if you are so proud! ...You are racist!!!

      July 29, 2011 at 10:44 am | Reply
  10. SSG Jughead

    In my 60 years on Earth, here is what I have learned, THERE IS NO HOPE FOR AFRICA. Why is up for grabs, but the constant is that Africa has always been behind and always will be. Population control forever!

    July 28, 2011 at 9:31 am | Reply
  11. Student

    Birth control is not an effective means of controlling population in countries where women do not have rights. If young girls are being married off and having children before they turn 16, do you really think they have any control over the number of children they will bear, or if their spouse wears a condom? It is not a woman's choice to take the pill, it is her husbands, and unfortunatley with the low levels of education present in Somalia, it is generally disregarded. Not wanting to help starving, dieing people, children even, is disgusting. I understand no one wants to pay more taxes, especially during a recession, but these people have any more control over the drought or famine that occurs in their country than we have control over a tornado or hurricane. Do not confuse social issues with the right to life and dignity, as well as the rights of safe access to food and water, which are outlined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

    July 28, 2011 at 9:55 am | Reply
    • Erika

      Thank you, thank you!

      July 29, 2011 at 10:40 am | Reply
  12. Jim

    Let them starve. If we feed them, they will continue to breed and create an ever larger problem.They contribute nothing to the world, and are incapable of functioning in complex-industrial societies. In fact, they appear to be incapable of functioning in simple third-world societies. We've already wasted trillions of dollars pretending that they are fully human. It's time to face reality and cut our losses. (And no, my ignoring PC orthodoxy and being "mean" does not imply that I am wrong. Grow up.)

    July 28, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • Erika

      How about instead of letting them starve, we let you and your children starve? You are racist!!!

      July 29, 2011 at 10:39 am | Reply
  13. Erika

    This is the most ridiculous discussion I have ever seen. The majority of you have used the phrases "those people" and "them"....what is the difference between them and us...nothing! We are all human...I can't believe there are still so many uneducated, and educated racists. Trust me, the world will leave you and your discriminatory views behind. There is no place for hate amongst humanity.

    July 29, 2011 at 10:47 am | Reply
  14. OneOfTheSheep

    What part of "DO NOT FEED THE PIDGEONS" do you not understand?

    I'll try to explain on your level. By making yourself feel good for a short time, you are increasing the human burden of the big blue marble. Is your long term aim really to have it become a big brown marble?

    July 30, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  15. Barbara

    Frederick0220 on July 16, 2011 This was ipssemrive btw. Cruiser maintains poise? under pressure like a tru playa.

    February 10, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  16. uncle ruckus

    let them lazy bums migrate over to the part that has lions,tigers etc hell eat a few lions in 50 years they will still be begging quit helping and let god have his way

    July 14, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  17. uncle ruckus

    hell lets send erica over there let them cook her

    July 14, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Reply
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