Somalia: The Politics of Famine

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A famine of “biblical proportions” has once again hit the Horn of Africa, striking hardest in Somalia. The international community has been slow to respond, various armed groups are using food aid as weapons to control the people and make profit and the Somalian prime minister, along with the UN Emergency Relief Fund, is suggesting the creation of a “humanitarian force” to protect aid convoys and IDP (internally displaced people) camps. All of this is eerily reminiscent of Somalia’s 1992 famine, which most in the West are familiar with due to the infamous Black Hawk Down battle or the shameful Somalia affair that has come to be known as “Canada’s national shame”. What is less often highlighted in the media is that a severe drought is also affecting neighbouring countries including Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. The media also does not provide context, making this disaster seem like it moved rapidly from a peaceful and plentiful situation to a famine. In fact, drought and violence are common occurrences in the Horn of Africa, they are not “new” by any standard. Why, then, has famine emerged just now, and why is Somalia in particular suffering the most?

The geographer and anthropologist Neil Smith famously claims that there is “no such thing as a natural disaster”, meaning that nature itself is not the only nor the most important factor in a disaster. Instead it is often socio-economic and political factors that cause disasters and determine their outcomes. Famines are particularly complex socio-political, economic and environmental phenomena. It is therefore important to unpack the long and short-term causes of famine to understand why famine is occurring, where in the picture we fit and how we can help end this blight on the Horn of Africa.


This is a natural place to start, as the availability of food is indeed the opposite of famine. Yet claiming that the biggest problem facing Somalis is a lack of food is quite misleading. Globally, there is more than enough food to feed the world several times over, the problem is rather one of access. As the famed economist Amartya Sen points out, the problem lies in the global food market and with prices. In Somalia, prices have risen three times more than the rest of the world. The price of sorghum, a staple food in Somalia, is now %240 higher than last year.

So why the rise in food prices? This leads into another tricky area in which climate change, global food markets and multinational corporations play a prominent role. Food has become a commodity on the global market and with it comes the often malignant profit motive, which has caused many farmers to shift from traditional farming practices to mono-crops and cash crops. This shift in farming methods leaves little room for stable traditional methods of farming and herding practices and pushes farmers to sell their excess production on global markets rather than save it incase of drought or bad harvests. Add to this the renting and selling of huge swathes of African farmland to foreign multinationals to grow food for export, which many food insecure countries in Africa, such as Ethiopia, have done. Global trends such as the move towards biofuels and the ever-rising price of energy also limit the amount of food produced for consumption and drive prices up. If this situation weren’t adverse enough, add climate change to the mix (with the well known fact that climate change affects the poorest and most vulnerable places the most), and you have a looming global food crisis.

Africa is most severely affected by these trends due to its highly unequal and unstable position in global markets. Since colonialism, African markets have been extroverted to suit the needs of industrialized states. Today a whopping ¾ of African exports are unprocessed primary goods. This makes a jump out of the poverty trap highly difficult and unlikely. On an individual level, this means that the majority of Africans (Somali’s included) are engaged in sectors which do not yield high incomes and which are highly susceptible to frequent ecological disturbances and global commodity price fluctuations.

Yet climate change and the structure of the global food market are not the only forces at work in Somalia’s famine. These same forces are at work in neighbouring countries, yet it is Somalia that is suffering the brunt of the famine. Why is this the case?

The Politics of Aid

As Al Jazeera claims, in the Somalian famine there has been a “response failure”. Again, this has many complex reasons behind it. Unfortunately or perhaps deliberately (depending on your degree of skepticism about the media), reporting on the catastrophe has been overshadowed by other world events-the Japanese earthquake, the Arab Spring, the European economic meltdown- to name a few. Yet governments and the public also played a tantamount role in the lack of reporting and lack of knowledge about the impending catastrophe. NGO’s such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has been warning of an impending famine since last year, warnings which were largely ignored. Yet in reality it is often easier to appeal for funds during a disaster than trying to shore up support and funds to tackle chronic issues such as poverty and malnutrition. That is why donors and governments often wait until the peak of a crisis to supply relief, at which point it is almost impossible to avert disaster. This has been the case for Somalia and many have accused the international community of willful neglect.

Even if donations are forthcoming, donations of the correct amount and type, these may not make it to those in need. As soon as disaster strikes, many idealists in the West (myself included) expect the United Nations to miraculously swoop in and make everything right again. Unfortunately that is not always the case. The UN is a major bureaucracy with many controversies under its belt, the latest of which involves the World Food Program (WFP) and its operations in Somalia. The WFP has been under investigation since 2002 on charges of diversion of food aid. As the journalist Jamal Osman claims, this is not accidental; the WFP is working with contractors that are known to be corrupt and it is aware of the diversion (in other words, theft) of its food aid. In Osman’s words, the WFP are “complicit” and are “themselves corrupt”. Working with certain contractors or groups and engaging in corrupt behaviour in their response to the famine has politicized the WFP and international aid more generally, pushing aid into the murky realm of Somali politics.

Political actors in Somalia

The complex local, national and international politics surrounding Somalia demand more attention than I am qualified to give them. What follows is a brief outline of how these politics have coalesced into a perfect storm that has denied the Somali people the aid and long-term development they deserve.

Afyare Abdi Elmi, a professor at Qatar University and a Somalia expert, claims that the “absence of a functioning state” is the leading cause of famine. The Somali government, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), is infamous for its corruption, internal power struggles and its incompetence. It has yet to outline a plan of action for the famine, preferring to wallow in internal strife rather than help its own population. Yet the failure of the government cannot be explained by some form of environmental or cultural determinism or some malaise specific to Somalis. It is in fact the outcome of Somalia’s blighted political history.

The US plays a prominent role here in its largely failed policies towards Al-Shabaab (a group of Islamist militants intent on the overthrow of the TFG) which has seen the US empower tribal militias, support a 2006 Ethiopian invasion that overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts (a group that had managed to established calm in the Southern parts of Somalia) and to help form the TFG out of the most US-friendly UIC components. Al Shabaab and other militant groups are splinters of the fractured UIC and are vociferously opposed to the government, with which they have been waging a devastating civil war. The civil war and the 2006 invasion have led to widespread displacement of civilians and disruption of normal life, including of course food production. Many of those displaced are now victims of the famine.

Although it is convenient to blame the global superpower for everything, the various national political actors have a significant role to play in Somalia’s famine. According to Abdi Ismail Samatar, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota, Al Shabaab are to blame for failing to tackle the famine and preventing their own people from helping themselves. According to him, Al Shabaab have been unable to establish basic governance infrastructure in the large areas they control, and worse,  have prevented the people under their control from organizing to deal with the famine. Although as Osman points out, Susan Rice’s (the US ambassador to the UN) claim that Al Shabaab has prevented aid agencies from entering their territory is misleading. In fact, around 70 agencies do work in Al Shabaab territories (including UNICEF, Norwegian Refugee Council), but the WFP has been banned, which goes back to the politicization of aid.

Where do we go from here?

So as we can see, although Somalia is far away from the West in terms of geographical space and realities of life, many of the actors and processes involved in the famine originate or somehow involve the developed world. So what can we do about this human catastrophe?

The various authors and experts I’ve read and listened to almost all agree that in the short term, emergency aid needs to be distributed to local and established NGO’s with the capacity to deliver aid without corruption to the people who need it most. The experts are also in agreement about the importance of long-term development to avert another famine, which some of them say will surely happen again as food and energy prices continue to rise. In the long term what is needed, as Abdi Ismail Samatar so eloquently sums up, “…is the establishment, by Somalis with the genuine assistance of others, of a national government that is accountable to the people. Such a government is the best defence against famine, as well as against terrorism.” Also, to ensure Somalia is not as vulnerable to the whims of the global market, economic diversification supported by genuine international assistance would factor into this. Although these goals seems large and unscalable, they are not impossible. The most important thing “we” can do is to educate ourselves, to know the reality on the ground, and to support those (the Somali’s and genuine international partners) who are working for a better future for Somalia.

Note: I am nowhere near an expert on famine nor on Somalia. The majority of the information used was obtained from Al Jazeera English as well as from several experts (academics, NGO workers, journalists). My own views on the situation have of course influenced this blog post. I hope not to offend or misinform. I am open to all criticism and suggestions for improvements. 


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