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Famine in Somalia: Questions and Answers

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Why is the famine only in Somalia, not elsewhere?

Inadequate rainfall has led to drought across the Horn of Africa but this problem is perennial in the arid lands where semi-nomadic people roam and where climate change means drought is biting more often. But regular droughts rarely become famine; this is the first time malnutrition has reached famine levels in nearly two decades. The last African famine was also in Somalia. War is a key factor that pushes a people facing drought into famine and this is what differentiates Somalia’s crisis from that of its neighbours.

Why is it so hard for aid agencies to work in Somalia?

Somalia is the world’s premier failed state, a seemingly ungovernable mess that has spawned terrorism, piracy and now a famine that is driving a growing proportion of the population out. A series of shifting and overlapping civil wars have raged for 20 years, leaving a traumatised country awash with guns. Every time the international community has intervened its fingers have been burnt. It is a dangerous and expensive place to operate.


How serious is the food crisis?

The UN now says 12.4 million people in the Horn of Africa do not have enough food. Of these, 3.7 million are in Somalia. Over two million are in areas controlled by al-Shabaab, putting them beyond the reach of many aid agencies, which rightly fear extortion, plunder and murder.

How bad is it going to get?

Predictions are that the number of people at risk will soon rise to 15 million across the region. The UN expects famine to be declared in all regions of southern Somalia in the coming weeks. Even if seasonal rains come in October, there will be no respite until early next year when the next harvest is due.

In the meantime the number of starving will increase and the slow, gradual emptying of southern Somalia will continue, adding to the burden placed on neighbours Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, which host most of Somalia’s refugees.

How big an obstacle is al-Shabaab?

Al-Shabaab is an Islamist militia that has attacked and threatened aid agencies in the past, making access very difficult — though not impossible. It comes as no surprise that the famine is, so far, restricted to areas under Al-Shabaab’s control where aid has only trickled in. Some Western charities still work in Shabaab territory using local intermediaries, and Islamic charities are welcome.

Will more money solve the crisis?

It will help. The UN says that it needs $2.5 billion but has only received $1.1 billion so far. Oxfam says the situation is “spiralling out of control” yet donors are not responding with urgency to fund-raising efforts. But money isn’t everything. The difficulties of working in Shabaab areas means increased aid will have to be funnelled through local partners who lack the capacity to deliver food on the same scale as a banned agency such as the UN’s World Food Programme. But while money will alleviate the immediate suffering of millions, it won’t solve the underlying political crisis.

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About David Gregory