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Another famine, another humanitarian band-aid

The food crisis in East Africa has seen a renewed drive for urgent international aid – as it has in the past. But while humanitarian assistance can provide short-term relief, it does not address Somalia’s long-term malaise.


The scenes are haunting, yet familiar: anguished mothers stream into packed refugee camps bearing malnourished children and harrowing tales of human survival, aid officials issue pleas for more international aid, donor countries cough up new promises, the usual bunch of celebrities sing their usual humanitarian tunes, and of course the journalists record it for an audience that has seen it all before.

We’ve been there, done that – and now we’re doing it all over again.

This time for Africa – or the Horn of Africa, to be precise. As it was 26 years ago, when Irish singer Bob Geldoff galvanized the globe with his star-studded Live Aid fundraiser for the Ethiopian famine relief effort.

The epicentre of the latest crisis is Somalia, where the UN has declared famine in two southern areas of the impoverished, war-wrecked country.

At a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) emergency meeting in Rome on Monday, French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire warned that, “If we don't take the necessary measures, famine will be the scandal of this century."

But the biggest scandal, according to seasoned analysts, is that once again the international community looks set to address the problem with a short-term, billion dollar humanitarian band-aid while failing to address Somalia’s chronic insecurity and political instability.

A perfect storm in the world’s top failed state

A consistent topper on the lists of the world’s failed states, Somalia has entered its third decade without a national government, leading Foreign Policy magazine to call its unending woes “the stuff hopelessness is made of”.

While there’s no doubt that failure of the rains has led to the serious drought in north-eastern Africa, the current crisis has been sparked by a perfect storm of factors, according to Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“I think it’s very important that we get the right perspective,” said Abdi “This crisis is a cumulative effect of a combination of factors. This drought did not come out of nowhere.

“But instead of doing something to prepare for it, the major players (in Somalia) spent their time fighting each other,” he said.

The two famine-hit southern Somali regions are under the control of al Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, whose dealings and backtracking with international aid groups during the latest crisis has highlighted the hopelessness of the political situation in the war-torn country.

The two regions – Bakool and Lower Shebell - are situated between the Juba and Shebell Rivers, an agricultural region that used to be the breadbasket of Somalia.

The cycle of drought is not uncommon in the region, a prospect Somali farmers typically prepare for by storing grain or taking other precautions.

But according to Abdi, al Shabaab has been encouraging farmers to switch from subsistence farming to growing cash crops, especially sesame seeds.

“This has compounded the problem because subsistence farmers who used to grow food for themselves, and used to store food in their granaries for hard times, now have nothing to fall back on,” he said.

In Somalia, traditional irrigation relief measures have been abandoned in a country consumed by conflict.

“In the old days, shallow football stadium-size pits were dug to collect rainwater, which later serve as reservoirs,” said Abdi. “But the government is not doing it because it’s caught up in fighting.”

Corruption and infighting in an internationally-funded government

Political infighting and corruption problems have plagued the UN-backed Somali government, which currently controls only half of the capital of Mogadishu, where it survives under the protection of a 9,000-strong African Union force.

Last week, Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed announced a new cabinet – the third in less than a year – led by Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. A Harvard-educated US citizen, Ali was appointed after the previous prime minister was forced out of office by a deal struck between the speaker and President Ahmed.

“The government is a figment of the international community’s imagination,” dismissed Abdi. “There is nothing redeeming about the government. Everything it has done has been disastrous.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Abdirazak Fartaag - who headed the government's finance management unit before he fled the country - said Somalis will continue to suffer unless the international backers who support the Somali government also demand that it does a better job.

Fartaag fled Somalia after writing a report detailing tens of millions of dollars in missing donations from Arab nations.

"Corruption is a major part of the problem in Somalia," said Abdi. “I wouldn’t shed a tear if the government collapses overnight. The problem is what will replace it.”

Abdi maintains that many Somali politicians continue to be corrupt with impunity since they believe the international community will not withdraw its support and allow al-Shabaab to take over the entire country.

Celebrities to the rescue

Corruption, conflict and mismanagement have driven most of the recent crises in the region, a fact that is as well known as it is overlooked by the international aid community.

In the mid-1980s, while Geldoff was exhorting the world to help the victims of Ethiopia’s famine, its communist dictator at that time, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, was pumping millions of dollars worth of Soviet arms into his military campaigns against Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels.

More than two decades later, Geldoff’s fellow Irish pop star, U2 frontman Bono, has joined a list of celebrities urging world leaders to step up their response to the Horn of Africa crisis.

In a statement released ahead of Monday’s FAO meeting in Rome, Bono and a group of celebrities and activists noted that, "It is incomprehensible that in 2011 anyone should die of starvation.”

But while stressing that aid is necessary to manage the current serious crisis, Abdi notes that “it is important that the aid community look at ways of building coping mechanisms rather than perpetuating dependency.”

In an interview with the BBC's Focus on Africa show, John O'Shea, director of the international charity Goal, said the UN's response to Somalia's political crisis had worsened the crisis, noting that the UN Security Council should have authorised a sizeable force of peacekeepers to end years of conflict in Somalia.

"We wouldn't have four million Somalis starving if they sent in UN peacekeepers," said O’Shea.

Somalia has 9,200 African Union peacekeepers out of a promised 20,000 - all of them based in Mogadishu.

With every crisis comes the hope that it could provide an impetus to find fresh solutions to long-standing problems.

The EU's humanitarian aid chief expressed this sentiment last week in an interview with The Associated Press. "Perhaps we should see this crisis as an opportunity for more attention to be brought back to Somalia," said Kristalina Georgieva.

But try as he might, Abdi can’t mirror that modest level of optimism. “Somalia has had so many crises, it has lost so many opportunities,” he said. “I wish and hope this will be an epiphany for Somalia, but I just don’t see it.”

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