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?

paarlberg Aug2 p.jpg
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.

What these farming communities need, above all else, is increased public investment in rural roads, electrical power, irrigation, clinics, schools, and agricultural research. But in recent decades, most African governments failed to make these investments because of a lack of international support. Between 1978 and 2006, the share of World Bank loans that went to agricultural development fell from 30 percent to only 8 percent.

The United States has also reduced its aid to small farmers since the 1980s. U.S. official development assistance to agriculture in Africa fell from $400 million annually in the 1980s to only $60 million by 2006. The political right promoted this abandonment of agricultural-development assistance on the erroneous assumption that private investment alone could do the job. The political left went along on the equally erroneous belief that modernizing African farming might be bad for social justice and the environment.

As international donors walked away from long-term agricultural-development efforts in Africa, per capita food production fell, leading predictably to an even greater need for emergency food aid. By 2006, perversely, the United States was spending 20 times as much shipping free food to Africa as it was spending to help Africans produce their own food.

A shock of much higher world food prices in 2008 finally led donors to promise revived support for Africa's smallholder farmers. President Obama announced in 2009 that he would ask Congress for a doubling of U.S. agricultural-development assistance worldwide, up to more than $1 billion by 2010. Later that year, at a summit meeting of the G8, he convinced the world's rich nations to pledge $22 billion collectively over three years to promote food security and agricultural development. By 2010, however, donors in Europe were facing a debt crisis, opted for budget austerity, and began backing away from these promises.

In the United States, the right - and the Tea Party movement, in particular -- began demanding budget cuts as well. In fiscal year 2011, Congress accordingly cut the expected U.S. contribution to a new Global Agricultural Food Security Program from $400 million down to only $100 million. And now a House Appropriations subcommittee has just cut FY 2012 funding for the Obama Administration's Feed the Future program by 18 percent. Only about half of 1 percent of our federal budget goes to poverty-focused foreign aid, so cutting these programs will have no significant budget impact at home -- only damaging humanitarian effects abroad.

In Somalia, if these effects are to be prevented from cascading into a full-scale disaster of the kind the country suffered through in the 1990s, the international community will have to focus as much effort as possible, as quickly as possible, where we can be most effective. This will mean covering shortfalls to protect current WFP feeding operations in the Horn of Africa. But also, especially from the United States, it will mean delivering on promised support for farming across Africa (which in turn will depend on Congressional appropriations committees feeling as much pressure as the U.S. public can muster that they deliver on this promised support). Around the Horn of Africa today, roughly 11 million people face food risks, while on the continent as a whole there are now an estimated 390 million Africans consuming less than the nutritional target of 2,100 calories per day. Most of these hungry people are farmers. Understanding what they need for a sustainable response to the food crisis they face, and responding to that need directly, will be the pivotal challenge in alleviating African famine.