The world failed Somalia
African Union peacekeepers in Mogadishu, where they engaged in heavy fighting with Al-Shabaab militants on July 29.
August 10th, 2011
05:20 PM ET

The world failed Somalia

Editor's Note: The following is reprinted with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.

By Jayshree Bajoria,

The famine declared in five areas in southern Somalia is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming four to six weeks, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN estimates twenty-nine thousand children under the age of five have died in southern Somalia and 3.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance across the country.

Rashid Abdi, a Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, calls the crisis in Somalia "a collective failure of the international community," which failed to act on early warnings of a crisis, or to invest in sustainable agriculture to make local communities self-sufficient. Additionally, al-Shabaab, an Islamic militant group which controls most of southern Somalia, had banned several international aid groups from the region in 2009.

Though they lifted the ban last month (al-Jazeera), restrictions remain. The priority now, Abdi says, is to reach people trapped inside al-Shabaab-controlled territory, and "if that means negotiating with al-Shabaab, so be it."

What is the scale of Somalia's humanitarian crisis, and how do you see it evolving?

Rashid Abdi: The scale of the crisis is unprecedented in many ways. The closest example you have is the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Because the population of Somalia is not that big, the numbers of people who have died are less, but there's no denying the fact that you have a huge humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia and you have tens of thousands of people who have died, mostly children. Now the famine has spread to regions that used to be the bread basket of Somalia, especially the Juba valley. The whole of south and central Somalia is now in the midst of this famine.

Do you fear this humanitarian crisis will spread beyond Somalia, beyond the Horn of Africa?

This famine is the outcome of many factors. One of them, of course, is ecological, environmental, and climatic. There hasn't been any significant rain for the last four years, so the wells have dried up. You have deforestation in southern Somalia, especially involving charcoal traders. You have poor land use and overgrazing. So environmental factors contribute to it. And this goes beyond Somalia–it extends to the whole Ogaden region of Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya. But in Kenya, and in Ethiopia especially, you have a more robust system of coping with disasters. You have a professional disaster management authority, and both these countries have learned how to cope with this crisis.

In southern Somalia, you don't have a government; you don't have a sense of any authority, except for al-Shabaab. So there has been a neglect of efforts to alleviate this kind of situation, and al-Shabaab has little experience in this aspect as well. So these regions are all closely tied together, and many of these so-called environmental factors are also close together. So in many ways, you can talk of a regional crisis, but at the moment the epicenter is Somalia.

What are the main problems in getting aid to the people in Somalia?

South-central Somalia is controlled by al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is paranoid about international NGOs and a year ago, they banned aid agencies from helping people in that region. A lot of the crisis is attributable to the fact that many people whose situation was very vulnerable did not get adequate help in time. That is why you see this crisis has reached this level.

Al-Shabaab appears to have recently backtracked on that ban, but it's very difficult to tell who is in charge in al-Shabaab and very difficult to know their real motive. But you have flights going into Baidoa, which is controlled by al-Shabaab, and you have reports of aid agencies now reaching al-Shabaab-controlled territory in southern Somalia. This is a good step, but al-Shabaab has not opened all the humanitarian corridors in southern Somalia. There are still restrictions in place.

There are many other practical and logistical problems in delivering aid. You have only one port that is open to aid agencies, which is Mogadishu. Kismayo is not open because it is controlled by al-Shabaab. But you are talking of port facilities that are completely run aground; there is no machinery in place, and you have infrastructure that has not been rehabilitated in the last twenty years. You have checkpoints by militias extorting money. So the practicalities of delivery are enormously challenging in Somalia.

How do you interpret al-Shabaab's decision to leave Mogadishu (BBC) and how will it affect aid delivery?

We should be cautious in saying, "al-Shabaab did this; al-Shabaab said that." There's no longer one al-Shabaab; you are talking of many al-Shabaabs. There was a faction that announced that "we are pulling out of Mogadishu." But the reports in the last two days clearly indicate that there are pockets of al-Shabaab presence in Mogadishu, and they have been conducting attacks against the AU peacekeeping forces. So, the picture is much more complicated.

Has the famine weakened al-Shabaab in any way?

Al-Shabaab has been enormously weakened by this crisis. Many are blaming al-Shabaab for catalyzing the [crisis] by locking out aid agencies. Al-Shabaab has been under enormous pressure from clan leaders in the region to act fast, but they have been dragging their feet, and when they reacted it was probably too late. Tens of thousands of children have already died. Tens of thousands of people have fled as refugees to eastern Kenya and southeastern Ethiopia. Many in Somalia, even those who initially supported al-Shabaab, are now blaming them and seeing them as culpable in this crisis.

Does this present an opportunity to stabilize the country?

If al-Shabaab was a cohesive organization and it was serious about averting humanitarian crisis in southern Somalia, then there would have been an opportunity. The problem is that you have a string of factions of al-Shabaab; you don't know who speaks for al-Shabaab. Even engaging them on the question of provisions of humanitarian supplies to the vulnerable populations in southern Somalia is no longer credible, because you don't know how senior or powerful that interlocutor is. Unless we know the power configurations within al-Shabaab, unless we know who calls the shots and who is in charge, it will be difficult for this crisis to have a peace dividend.

Potentially there is an opportunity that you may cut a deal with one faction or another. But what if you have a faction that doesn't like it, that creates its own challenges. As long as al-Shabaab is fragmented and deeply divided as a group, the possibilities of engagement for a positive result are very remote. Many had hoped that engaging al-Shabaab on humanitarian corridors and a ceasefire for a brief period [would] kick-start a positive dynamic. But I don't think we are there.

Do you think the international community is doing enough to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and the rest of the Horn? And what more can they do?

This is a failure of the whole international system of aid delivery. We had excellent analysis coming out of Somalia on a potential food crisis. We had all the early-warning systems many months ago, but perhaps everyone thought, "Things will not be that bad." This is a collective failure of the international community.

What should be the main priorities of the international community in the short term?

Reach those people who are desperately in need, especially those who are trapped inside al-Shabaab-controlled territory in southern Somalia. Every effort must be made to reach out to those people. If that means negotiating with al-Shabaab, so be it. It is actually more moral to engage al-Shabaab in that than anything else, to save millions of lives.

Beyond emergency aid, what would be your policy recommendations for the international community to prevent such crises in the future?

We need to learn from this crisis that there are many factors that contributed to it. One is conflict. And conflict resolution should be essential. The epicenter of this famine is southern Somalia, which traditionally used to be the bread basket of the country. So the question to ask is, "Why are we in this state?" And it's clear it is because the [international community has] not made the investment that needs to be made in those [famine-affected] communities in how to [improve] agriculture, how to build their coping mechanisms. We need to help those communities become self-sufficient because they are capable of it.

We don't act until the crisis is in full bloom and then we throw bags of wheat. That is not how to deal with crisis. We need to help communities to fend for themselves, to help themselves, to rebuild their traditional methods of coping. Somalia has had many severe droughts in the past, but why has this drought turned into a famine? There are reasons for it, and those are the lessons we need to learn. And we need to act fast when we get evidence that things are really serious.

So are you asking the international community to invest in agriculture?

Absolutely, and not only in agriculture. People have various methods of coping. For example, the Juba Valley and the Shebelle region are drained by two huge rivers: the Shebelle River and the Juba River. They drain massive volumes of water into the Indian Ocean. So if we build methods of water conservation in those parts, we will have enough water for human use, for livestock use, and for agriculture as well. And these systems used to exist. It's just that now there isn't any government.

We also need to criminalize and punish those who are involved in the charcoal trade, because they are contributing to this crisis. Much of southern Somalia has now turned into a lunar landscape because of the [deforestation] work of criminal mafia groups who are involved in the charcoal trade. We should criminalize the buying of Somali charcoal too, tightening the screws both on the supply end and on the demand end.

What are the implications of large-scale displacements of Somalis who are fleeing to Kenya and Ethiopia, countries also facing some level of drought?

Somalis' displacement will continue until there is a resolution of the crisis, a resolution of the political conflict and that appears far away because of what's going on in south Somalia. When we talk about the drought in northeastern Kenya and Ethiopia, these are places where despite a lot of hardships, you have governments in place, you have administrations that are in place, and they have better coping methods.

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Topics: Famine • Somalia

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soundoff (316 Responses)
  1. Pierre - Westmount, Qc, Canada

    It's the easiest and simplest outlet to blame "The World" as being responsible for Somalia's. How naìve can one get? What is being ignored is the lack of birth control. It is not up to "The World" to keep on feeding a population and any population that just keeps on giving birth after birth. Famine, as it was correctly reported, is the outcome of corrupt governments and mismanagent. As long as the civilized world continues feeding this practice, it will never change. Education is non-existent and, in more often taboo in their so-called "culture".

    August 12, 2011 at 8:26 am | Reply
  2. Mark L.

    Keep voting "Republican" or "Tea Party" IDIOTS !!!! Pretty soon you will have the United States of Somalia right here in your own backyard !! (Does anyone even have an idea how many of our very own children, right here in the U.S.A., are starving????) WHY THE HECK should I care about Somalia?? FIRST, LET'S TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN !!!! Seems quite apparent to me, the Somali Women DON'T KNOW HOW NOT TO SPREAD THEIR LEGS !!!!

    August 12, 2011 at 8:35 am | Reply
  3. Ron

    How about Somalia failed the world? Because it did. It failed to contribute anything meaningful to the world. It failed to take a hand UP. It failed it's people. It's people failed it. SOMALIA is the failure here. The rest of the world is under no obligation to feed and clothe these people.

    August 12, 2011 at 8:48 am | Reply
  4. Andrew

    Maybe the international community will be more enthusiastic about feeding Somalia when they can be certain that their people won't be coming back in body bags for their troubles or the corpses of their soldiers stripped and dragged through the streets.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:06 am | Reply
  5. Conan the Librarian

    Seems that some things never change – Somalia and other African nations have done nothing to try and help their citizens – many of whom have the same standard of living their ancestors had 400 years go.
    The vicious cycle of death and drought has been going on for over a thousand years. Did it ever occur to t hem that maybe God or Mother Nature made some places that cannot support human life? And the issue of birth control needs to be addressed? Why continue to have children that you have little or no chance of taking care of? There are some basic laws of nature here.
    What ever is done now is only an interim solution and delaying providing a real solution to the problem. Feed them today only to let them starve next month? Where is the humanity in that.
    There are plenty of Muslim countries that could help out – but they don't. Seems that they are not following the basic message of the Koran. Why is that? Islam has failed it's followers again.
    I offer that they know that there is no viable solution to what is happening in Somalia. At least one that the international community will embrace and implement without a lot of political maneuvering.
    A simple solution is to open the borders around Somalia let the people out that want/need to leave. Once they are out they cannot have any more children. Once the citizens are out the rest of the shuns Somalia until it ceases to exist as a nation. There is no need for it to exist.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:27 am | Reply
  6. USMC Vet

    Somolia failed itself. In 1995 I was at a checkpoint/feeding point passing out bags of rice and wheat and water to Somolia's well in the USMC and was shot twice in the back for my effort. I wasnt the only one to have this happen. They dont want the help, or know what to do with the help that is offered them. One of the only things that Clinton did right was say that you dont want our help were getting out of here.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:32 am | Reply
  7. volksmaniac

    Maybe we should do a fly -over and drop some pamphlets promoting cannabilism . Population control and food ? Problem solved . Next ?

    August 12, 2011 at 9:32 am | Reply
  8. Justin

    It's a shame what's happening...but not our problem. Last time we tried to help these people they shot down two of our helicopters and killed 20+ soldiers. Time to bring our troops home and let the world solve its own problems.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:37 am | Reply
  9. Somali

    Speak for yourself! I am an American and I want my tax money to help SOMALIA and any other country that needs it.

    For those of you who think you know about Somalia, you don't know Jack. I bet the First time you came to hear about Somalia was 1993. Do your home work before you open your mouth. And believe me, I don't have anything against the US Gov for playing a dirty politic game. I just wish WE (Americans) admit our gov errors.....

    Somalis alone didn't failed themselves, the US mislead them to go to war against it's neighbor country Ethiopia because of the COLD WAR. Russia & Cuba supported Ethiopia's. From that moment, Somalia started to crumble. Then the civil war started in late 80's.

    August 12, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
    • Conan the Librarian

      I too am an American taxpayer and I do not want one dime going to Somalia. Your reasoning while well intended is flawed and based upon propaganda that you have filtered and positioned to support your thinking.
      The homework has been some and the facts remain the same no matter how you interpret them.
      The problems in Somalia started long before 1993 and the US is NOT the sole cause for the problems and challenges they are facing today. Your thoughts on the uncontrolled population growth that has no way of ever being sufficient?

      August 12, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply
  10. Matt

    He should be standing on the floor of the UN saying this. Not to reports. The UN is hold a ton of relief money. THEY are picking and choosing what to do with it. IT IS NOT OUR ISSUE..

    August 12, 2011 at 9:40 am | Reply
  11. AB

    Nobody failed Somalia. It is their own doing. Of course lot of innocent people are hurt but it is their own people. In fact they are also threatening and sometimes killing people who try to help. This is really bizarre and here left wing writers and politician are crying

    August 12, 2011 at 10:07 am | Reply
  12. AB

    I think Jayshree Bajoria should go to Somalia and distribute food and raise their lives.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
  13. Somali

    Somalis are part of the problem too. I will never pretend they are not.

    About the short history I mentioned on top, is all true. Unless you can proof me wrong.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:11 am | Reply
    • Pierre - Westmount, Qc, Canada

      Over-arguing your point lacks convincing. Your comment is the typical rant of someone who uses the blame game blaming everyone else but the real culprits, namely for one, a sub-culture that forbids birth control. Corruption also contributes to Somali's mess. So, if you want to prove that you can argue and present an intelligent dialogue, you'd better have something brighter to say.

      August 12, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply
  14. jwb

    Somalia failed because the Somalians have no idea how to run a nation to begin with. Any and all nations could pour trilions of dollars into that nation and I can predict with certainty that nothing would change, but the trillions of dollars would be in the hands of rebels and their sympathizers quickly and the insanity and poverty of that nation would continue.

    Sorry, I"m not buying this nonsense that the world failed Somalia. Pure nonsense.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:11 am | Reply
  15. Barry G.

    I am confident that the American people are heartbroken about the suffering of the people of Somalia.

    I also know that the American people are willing and trying to do what they can to help.

    It’s strange, but I don’t recall hearing anything about what the oil-rich OPEC countries have been doing to ameliorate this human catastrophe. Perhaps I missed something.

    I’m surprised that the entire world has not whole-heartedly condemned the corrupt governments of Africa who bear responsibility for such problems as this. And I'm surprised the world has not condemned the evil and ruthless extremists, such as al shabab, who have caused these people to suffer and have hindered these people from receiving the aid they need.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:18 am | Reply
  16. Precursor

    I'm curious as to how its the "International Communities" fault for failure to provide aid when last time they did so they (the aid workers) were attacked and prevented from actually properly distributing the aid? If they weren't going to accept international aid then they better provide for themselves.

    Of course the video of them cheering as American bodies are dragged through the streets has me not really caring whether they starve to death.

    August 12, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
  17. jake

    WRONG, somalia has failed ITSELF.these people are barbarians and subhuman animals that breed faster then roaches. if you want to feed them, put something in the food that will cause sterility.

    August 12, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
    • capnmike


      August 12, 2011 at 11:12 am | Reply
  18. zhawk88

    How about we stop fighting wars for oil and other skewed reasons, and actually fight for what America "says" it stands for? I can get behind our military kickin some a__ to save innocent children. What are we still doing in Iraq and Afghanistan? If we're gonna fight, at least make it something that makes a good impact. Saving innocent lives is obvious. I don't disagree with fighting terrorism, don't get me wrong, but I think you can see my point.

    August 12, 2011 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • zhawk88

      And one other point... I don't care who's to blame for this situation. Kids are starving to death, and something HAS to be done. That's the bottom line. We can sort out the blame game later.

      August 12, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  19. capnmike

    "The world failed Somalia"???...And what has Somalia done for the world? NOTHING. America and Europe have been pouring billions of dollars in aid into Africa for DECADES, and they have done nothing except breed, consume and pollute. THIS NEEDS TO STOP.

    August 12, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  20. Campephilis

    Funny how it's "the world" failed Somalia. If this was happening under the previous U.S. administration, it would be Bush's fault. CNN can't possibly blame Obama hence collective world blame. I guess Hope and Change is not working in the horn of Africa....

    August 12, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply
  21. Dino B

    Is the writer of this article on drugs??? I used to feel sorry for Africans and whatnot but experience and wisdom cured me of this disease. The Somalians failed themselves. No country should have to waste their valuable resources to clean up another country's mess. If anything, give the Somalians condoms, and nothing else. They need to stop reproducing. They are letting their own children starve to death and rot in the dirt. These Somalians deserve NOTHING.

    August 12, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  22. Vincent Lovece

    Somalia is a country full of fanatic ingrate terrorist pirates. We tried to help, and they attacked us. Let them starve until they are willing to accept help. I know that sounds unmerciful, but it is what the Bible teaches; just read the parable of the prodigal son. The son starved until he admitted he was wrong and returned to his father; his father did not go looking for him, but he got up and ran to his son as soon as he saw him.

    August 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  23. MAERSK

    If they want to develop they shall do it on their own, nobody in the world owes anything to anyone, those who want war shall do it no matter what, if not illegally they shall do it in some other way (through conspiracy...) .

    Whatever the case, if the world truly wants to act, then they shall have to encourage talks from the fighting sides, involve both in the representation in the govt. and start the process of development (South Sudan did it), and if they are dying again next year from famine it is because they are not too keen on finding a permanent solution like growing food on their fertile land, they can get a tip from the nations that have been able to reverse desertification .... and so on.

    If they need reconciliation they can look up to Rwanda since it is doing so well despite the fact that they just got out of war and are on the path to progress and economic development.


    August 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  24. M Schwartz

    In 1900 the population of sub-saharan africa was 100 million. By 2005 that was 770 million and by 2050 it could be 2 billion.

    The UN and aid organisations need to urgently provide free contraceptive injections and implement a two child limit otherwise there will be far worse famines to come.

    August 20, 2011 at 4:44 am | Reply
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    March 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
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    I was suggested this blog by my cousin. I am no longer sure whether or not this post is written by means of him as nobody else know such certain about my trouble. You are amazing! Thank you!

    April 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
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