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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Famine On the Horn of Africa and Why It Took the UN So Long to Declare It

The United Nations (UN) declared a famine in the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of Somalia early Wednesday morning. The UN is appealing for $300 million from the international community in the next 2 months, according to this report, as it tries to assist the Horn of Africa region in mitigating its worst drought in decades. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon reiterated this point to reporters in New York. “We need donor support to address current needs and prevent a further deterioration of the crisis,” he said, after addressing the Security Council on the impact of climate change on international peace and security. “If funding is not made available for humanitarian interventions now, the famine is likely to continue and spread.”
The situation is futher complicated by the instability in the region. The ongoing armed conflict in Somalia between insurgent groups and the Somali government have made it impossible for aid to reach the worst affected areas in southern Somalia. Food agencies and UN humanitarian agencies are encouraged by the request for international assistance in southern Somalia from the unsurgent group Al-Shabaab. Aid agencies been previously unable to reach that area of the country since early 2010 due to fighting between insurgents and government groups.

If you are following me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I was tweeting about why a famine had not yet been declared in Somalia for a couple of days now. It is crucial to understand the meaning that the UN applies to the word famine to know why this is significant. In order for a food crisis to be classified as a famine by the UN, the following circumstances must be present: at least 20 percent of households facing extreme food shortages, a crude mortality rate of more than 2 people per 10,000 per day and malnutrition rates of above 30 percent. In this instance, Somalia’s failed state status also caused a long delay in the ability of UN agencies to properly access the situation and declare a famine sooner. Because of fighting between the government, regional warlords, and insurgent groups, the UN has had to guess as to the number of households that are “facing extreme food shortages". Because of this delay, what would have been an ecological crisis (drought) and food shortage is now an ecological crisis, food shortage, refugee crisis, security crisis, and famine. While the situation in Somalia gets more and more desperate, more Somalis are apt to turn to piracy violence, and aggression as a means for survival. As such, the situation has reinforced a feedback loop that is increasing piracy and violence in the region. The recent swelling of refugee camp populations in neighboring Kenya and Etiopia (some growing as fast as 1300-1500 people per day) demonstrate how failed states and armed conflicts can cause, and worsen humanitarian crises.

Declaring famine is further complicated due to regional political and economic concerns that can actually worsen a food crisis in the short term. Those who do have food to sell will often be less willing to part with it, for obvious reasons. Declaring famine could also further delegitimize the Somali government and embolden warlords and insurgent groups in the area an actually intensify fighting. It is also curious to note that the term “food security” is not present in the UN definition of “famine” even though the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has gone to great lengths to revise it multiple times. (FAO). UN estimates are that $1.6 billion in is needed to pay for essential programs to help stabilize the Horn of Africa. Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are all facing the worst in 50 years, leaving an estimated 10-12 million people immediately in need of humanitarian assistance. The failed State status of Somalia only further complicates the crisis. The international community must make developing strategies to dealing with failed States a top priority in the 21st century. Because of the economic, security, social, and ecological feedback loops that they create, humankind is faced with the prospect of dealing with the worst humanitarian crises in our history if we do not.

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