Famine in Somalia: What Can the World Do About It?

Nineteen years ago, 300,000 Somalis starved to death. What can the international community do keep it from happening again?

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A displaced woman from Somalia sits with her malnourished child at a Banadir hospital / Reuters

In Somalia today, there are ominous parallels with 1992: pervasive fighting among rival clans, far too little rain, and an inability among international peacekeeping forces to restore order or ensure that food aid reaches those in need. Nineteen years ago, the result was the death by starvation of 300,000 Somalis. Will it happen again?

It doesn't have to. But everything depends on how the world responds.

In some ways, the current situation is more complicated. One reason lies outside of Somalia altogether: the painful set of memories associated with our attempts to help in 1992, particularly in the United States. Then, the U.S. response was a forceful military intervention. President George H.W. Bush dispatched 25,000 American troops to Somalia, allowing food deliveries to resume, and preventing as many as 200,000 additional deaths. But in October 1993, famously, two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu, 18 U.S. soldiers died, and the body of one dead American was dragged triumphantly through the streets. Public outrage forced President Clinton to terminate the mission. As a consequence, it's unlikely that U.S. policy makers will come close to taking similarly dramatic steps today.

Meanwhile, two factors on the ground in Somalia itself threaten to make the current crisis more dangerous than the previous one. First, the drought is much worse this time -- perhaps the worst of its kind in 60 years. Second, there is now an Islamist militant organization, Al-Shabab, controlling the southern region of Somalia, where the drought has been most severe. The 2 million people living in this region cannot get food aid, because Al-Shabab's leadership, which brags about its close ties to Al-Qaeda, distrusts food-aid workers as spies. The propaganda they project among those living under their control is that it is better to starve than to accept help from the West.

Under these seemingly intractable circumstances, what can those outside Somalia do to prevent mass deaths on the scale of the 1990s? Setting up relief camps in neighboring countries and waiting for starving Somalis to walk across the border is not a good option, because many do not survive the trip, and those that do become helpless refugees. Camps along Somalia's borders with Kenya and Ethiopia already hold 500,000 destitute people. Paying large bribes to Al-Shabab fighters could get some food through on the ground, but it is obviously not a sustainable solution, among the reasons being that the government agencies financing the aid will not ultimately tolerate it. Dropping food from UN airplanes will help, but not nearly on the scale needed to make a significant difference.

The best policy option that the international community has available to it in Somalia is to support as much as possible the feeding operations now underway in the sizeable territories not controlled by Al-Shabab. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is currently feeding 1.5 million people in Somalia, including 300,000 in Mogadishu itself, but these operations are constantly in danger of running out of resources. For the Horn of Africa as a whole, WFP is facing a funding shortfall of $252 million, so those wishing to help can start by focusing on ways to make up this shortfall.

The international community can also do things beyond Somalia, and indeed beyond the exigencies of emergency food aid. Rich nations, including the United States, can start by delivering the support they have promised to build Africa's own food-production capabilities. Small farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa need help to boost their productivity. If you visit a typical farming community in Uganda, or Kenya, or Cameroon, or Benin, most of those you meet will be women, most will be illiterate, and most will be living at least a 30-minute walk from the nearest paved road. As well, most will be farming with hand hoes, no irrigation, no electrical power, no modern seeds, and no veterinary medicine for their animals. These women are hardworking and highly resourceful, yet the returns on their labor are minimal because they have so little to work with. Their cereal crop yields are only one-tenth as high as those in Europe or North America, their average income is only $1 a day, and one-in-three of them is undernourished.

Presented by

Robert Paarlberg is Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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