Catastrophe in the Horn: Causes and responses
A Somali child suffering from severe acute malnutrition sits in a ward of the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) NGO in Dadaab in Kenya on July 22, 2011. MSF is currently treating over 7000 children for malnutrition in this one of three camp at Dadaab. With the worst drought in 60 years hitting the Horn of Africa, the flow of Somali refugees arriving at the camp has increased over recent months, putting resources there under severe strain. (Getty Images)
July 27th, 2011
04:30 PM ET

Catastrophe in the Horn: Causes and responses

Editor's Note: Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance. The following is reposted from his blog.

By Stewart M. Patrick,

The area straddling Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya, has been dubbed the “triangle of death” as the worst drought in more than fifty years grips the area. An estimated thirty percent of children are malnourished, many arriving in refugee camps so “emaciated and with skin lesions so deep that you could see their bones showing in their skulls and arms.” According to testimony by State Department official Reuben Brigety, acute malnutrition has reached 50% and 40%, respectively, in Ethiopia and Kenya—far above the 15% threshold for an international humanitarian emergency.

The causes of this emergency are complex, and the international effort to address the situation is well-intentioned, but the crisis demands a broader and dramatic reaction, which sadly, remains improbable.

Somalis have not been governed by a central government since 1991, which has aggravated a number of the famine’s contributing factors beyond the oft-cited violent conflict and drought. Over the last year, fuel and food price increases have surpassed 300 percent in the Somali capital. Regional deforestation has devastated traditional ecosystems, eliminating trees, grazing land, and water and rendering the tri-nation area “more or less dry.” Much of the productive farmland has been leased to China, Saudi Arabia, and India, so desperately needed food has been exported to foreign markets. Finally, local farmers lack machinery and fertilizer, leading to low agricultural outputs and the absence of food reserves to sustain people during droughts or other shocks.

On Monday, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) announced a plan to airlift food aid into Somalia, and the United Nations has raised $1 billion to address the issue. While this may temporarily stem the number of deaths, it is unlikely to address the economic and climatological forces underlying the disaster.

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Furthermore, foreign food aid itself—while life-saving—risks  exacerbating the underlying problem.

As my colleague Laurie Garrett explained in 2009,

“79 percent of all food aid last year from wealthy countries was delivered in the form of domestically produced surplus crops, shipped via rich-country transport mechanisms…Upwards of 40 percent of all food aid spending last year was eaten up by shipping and distribution costs… Hundreds of foreign aid organizations—in the UN system, bilateral government programs, and NGOs—have tried for decades to improve agricultural production inside poor countries… Shipping food, grown by subsidized farmers toiling inside rich countries, distorts local markets not only inside famine-affected countries, but across entire regions…The longer-term impact of donated food, then, is to destroy all positive market incentives for local farmers.”

Speaking before the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, Nancy Lindborg, the assistant administrator for democracy, conflict, and humanitarian assistance of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) echoed these concerns. She described how the “multiple legislative mandates” tied to U.S. food aid “create a number of operational difficulties and hinder the effectiveness.” For instance, 75 percent of aid commodities must be “processed, fortified or bagged,” forcing USAID to “make less than optimal product selections.”

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Counterterrorist concerns have also complicated and slowed the U.S. response. In recent years the United States has cut humanitarian aid to Somalia, on the grounds that that al-Shabaab, the militant Islamist group that controls much of the south, will divert assistance to its own profit. For its part, Al Shabaab denies that Somalia is suffering from a famine and continues to prohibit UNICEF and WFP from operating in the country. Despite earlier promises of access, it now declares that only the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies may remain.

The upshot? “More than 3.5 million Somalis, the vast majority of them in the insurgent-held areas, may starve to death,” according to Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim.

Can anything be done to improve humanitarian access? Joel Charny of InterAction, an alliance of U.S. relief organizations, thinks so, but only if the United States shows greater flexibility. He emphasizes that U.S. sanctions and legal issues unnecessarily complicate the delivery of aid:

"Al-Shabaab has made life very difficult for our [humanitarian aid] community in South Central [Somalia], but it’s not across the board and it’s something that we can negotiate on a case-by-case basis…. The approach of the U.S. government, up to now, has been so absolutist. They’re basically saying that the diversion of almost, literally, a cup of rice constitutes grounds to more of less shut down an entire aid program for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people."

Even if aid organizations could penetrate the areas held by al-Shabaab, food aid alone will not eliminate the underlying causes of the crisis mentioned above. Barring the construction of a well-functioning state by internal forces—which sadly appears unlikely given the past twenty years—addressing the underlying causes would require long-term strategy from the international community. The 9,200-strong African Union peacekeeping force currently restricted to Mogadishu will not be able to provide political stability, and UN member states, including the United States show little appetite for a robust mission in the region. Still, the international community has the power to tailor food aid that doesn’t disrupt local economies and increases agricultural productivity so farmers can save surpluses, through support for technological improvement like irrigation systems.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart M. Patrick.

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Topics: Africa • Aid • Famine • Food • Humanitarian intervention

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. leeintulsa

    It sounds like everything there they brought on themselves.. They chopped down all the trees and ruined their farmland, what they don't lease to other countries.

    They've let this chaos go on since 91. Not ONE of them rising up against this guy that wants them all to starve. Sure, he'd die in the process. For his kids' future.

    And at least he wouldn't have to live as one of the somali sheeple.

    July 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • Erika

      You are obviously racist...and why dont you google the definition and description of a desert.

      July 29, 2011 at 10:52 am | Reply
  2. GOPisGreedOverPeople

    Don't expect the GOP to help.

    July 28, 2011 at 10:04 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Somalia is another artifical state, created in 1960. Historically the region has been occupied by Somalis and was divided between British, French and Italian Colonists. The first 20 years of the country's existence were marked already by political instability, which ultimately led to the long civil war and the entailing anarchy. As the country is in chaos, there are no authorities that provide for its people. Very sad!

    July 28, 2011 at 10:06 am | Reply
  4. Khandahar Kris

    I give to African famine relief every time it happens. I started in 1985 as a new graduate with a hefty student debt (remember "We Are The World"?). I almost bankrupted myself in 92 giving to African famine relief then.

    This time around, I am not giving. The photos of starving children haunt me but I no longer look at the world with the same naive eyes I had in the 80's and my first response is no longer to throw money at the problem but rather to ask questions.

    Questions like, "Why is it that after $1 trillion in donations, this part of the world still lacks the infrastructure to respond to a cyclical and entirely predictable catastrophe like a recurring famine?"

    Questions like, "Is my money being stolen or used as bribes rather than being used to buy food? Is my money funding Al Shabaab or other terrorist groups?"

    Questions like, "Is my money simply enabling a "welfare mentality" amongst the East Africans?"

    Questions like, "Why is it that after receiving so much good will from the West in the form of aid, the Horn of Africa remains an unwavering center for anti-Western rhetoric and activities?"

    Questions like, "How much longer are aid organizations going to play on my guilt and my humanity in order to get me to give without answering any of these fundamental questions about the efficacy and end result of my good will?"

    July 28, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • Erika

      What is a welfare mentality? That if I'm starving, someone might care enought to throw a piece of bread for my dying child? That view is outdated, wrong, ridiculous and a definite example of the privilege that some people believe they have...this could be you someday

      July 29, 2011 at 10:55 am | Reply
  5. dave1

    The other question to ask is: "If we've been sending humanitarian aid for 40 years, how is it that the population has increased?"

    The issue is that this area is not capable of supporting the population of 1980, let alone the much expanded population of 2011. The more people you save, the more they exceed the region's carrying capacity.

    No more aid until we see population reduction.

    July 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • Erika

      You are racist!!! You better hope nothing ever happens to you, your children, or your family in crisis...maybe there wont be any empathy for your situation. Population reduction? Why is it a woman's problem? Why don't you donate to creating a universal male birth control pill racist!

      July 29, 2011 at 10:58 am | Reply
  6. GMM

    I wouldn't worry about it. Gov. around the world have 90% of the population slated for extermination anyway.... That includes Ms. Erika... lucky you ! I don't support the Red Cross, Unicef,or any other greedy org. supposedly out to help the poor, etc. Look what happened with Katrina. NOT ONE outside country offered any help. Where did all the money sent by Americans go ? It sure wasn't to the people of Mississippi, or Louisiana ! But they made damn sure Bourbon Street was up and running for their NEXT Mardi Gras !

    So, if I were you Ms. Erika, I would get my head out of my rectum and start to SEE what your Gov. doesn't want you to SEE ! Cheerio !

    July 29, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Reply

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