By the time we declare famine, it's too late
Nearly half a million children in the Horn of Africa are at risk of dying from malnutrition and disease.
August 23rd, 2011
06:00 AM ET

By the time we declare famine, it's too late

Editor's Note: Andrew Blejwas is the Humanitarian Media Manager at Oxfam America.

By Andrew Blejwas, Special to CNN

There is nowhere to begin a conversation about aid delivery and famine in Somalia that doesn’t wind up in a labyrinth of blame and risk. But at the end of the maze, ultimately, are people like Mohamed Dahir, a local Somali aid worker helping to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) throughout Mogadishu and Lower Shabelle.

With international support Dahir and his staff are on the ground delivering clean water and sanitation to more than 300,000 IDPs; frequently working in all areas to deliver lifesaving aid.

Make no mistake, it is local partners like these that are on the front lines of the crisis, trying to stave off a disaster that’s been years in the making. These are Somalis helping Somalis and they’ve been doing it for years. That the work is necessary, and has been so for years, is symptomatic of the hugely complex problems facing the region and organizations trying to assist.

Yet they’re often at the center of a battle over causes and solutions that does not offer any easy out – as much as Somalis, governments, the media, aid agencies (and their critics) want.

The current crisis is a case in point. There have been dueling criticisms of NGOs that they have been too quick to cry wolf over the current crisis.  On the other hand, there is the impression that not enough was done soon enough. There is perhaps some truth to both viewpoints, yet the reality is far more complex. Oxfam and other organizations have been warning for more than a year that the crisis is real.

Yet international attention to a disaster often fails to muster anything more than a few news articles and modest monetary response from the international donor community unless the crisis has reached a famine point, which only just happened this July.

By the time a famine is declared and pictures of starving children are blasted across the Internet, it’s too late to mount any preventative response and certainly too late to ask “Why didn’t we know about this.” You can’t declare a famine where there isn’t one, and nobody cares unless there is one. It’s a chicken and egg debate of the most brutal kind.

But there are more chickens and more eggs to debate.

Is the current crisis a result of failed rains, conflict, entrenched poverty, poor governance, or a failure to invest in marginalized areas? The short answer? Yes. The reality is, some of the lowest levels of rain in 60 years is compounding existing problems in an increasingly drought-prone area of the world. It’s no coincidence that the worst affected areas are the poorest and least developed in the region.

Ultimately though, the conversation has got to be about solutions, and it’s a terrible mistake to think that Somalis are helpless without western aid.

Flying a plane over Somalia and shoving food out the back, while sometimes necessary, isn’t an effective or sustainable solution to the crisis. The fact of the matter is that it is Somalis doing the real humanitarian work in the country, with support (financial, logistical and technical) from other groups like Oxfam.

But the response to the current crisis has got to be about more than just emergency response. With development, roads and workable social systems recurring emergencies can be prevented.

The problem is that aid agencies have been warning of impending disaster since the beginning of the year – governments, and leaders too, do not start listening until we hit crisis levels and people start losing their lives. So let’s make a deal, we’ll stop warning of massive emergencies when the international community and governments act early enough to prevent them from happening.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Andrew Blejwas.

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Topics: Famine • Somalia

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    Famine in Somalia has merely a moral impact on the industrial nations, not a politcal and economic one.

    August 23, 2011 at 9:38 am | Reply
  2. David Prosser

    Yes, much more needs to be done to prevent famine from developing. In fact, it should be the job of humanity to make sure such things do not occur. But what about malnourishment? I think that both need to go hand in hand. Are we saying that we'll help if "pictures get bad enough" only? Or are we saying that malnourishment and famine are social injustices which the world needs to right?

    If all of the countries in the world cared about this issue then it would be resolved. Not just an article or a special report but if actual work was being done to prevent malnourishment and famine from occurring. Is money the issue? Here's something then, cut consumption. If Americans alone cut consumption down to the levels of most other countries in the world then famine like this could be prevented.

    But while the blame is largely on America, after all they have set the trend for over consumption, blame must also fall on all those who follow her example down that road to excess. Hasn't the time come when humanity says enough is enough? What makes us human? If we let malnourishment and famine occur so easily then we can at least stress that our compassion is merely an illusion. What will it take to value human life no matter local?

    These are fundamental questions for a world connected through globalization, intertwined to the point of financial crisis and ecological crisis affecting us all. But famine? We pass it out of our minds if we are not directly involved or stand by the age old saying of, "there are disaster relief foundations which will help."

    But what are we doing? If each of us when we went to consume food thought of those who had no food then how would we enjoy our plentiful and frequent meals? A change of consciousness must arise throughout humanity or we will simply continue to let the under fortunate suffer. Are we humans? Let's each of us find out.

    August 24, 2011 at 1:18 am | Reply
    • DebP

      Great points David. Who would need shows like 'biggest loser', or all those diet shows about people who can't lose weight. Once there is a global food shortage, this will no longer be a problem. Lets hope it doesn't get that far. Chew on that while you chew on your burger...

      August 24, 2011 at 1:38 am | Reply
  3. ??????

    Wha? This is true and all, but you've got a bigger problem on your hands. Kony.

    May 14, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply

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