The Focus on the Horn of Africa Should be on the Famine in Somalia

Once again famine rages in Somalia. Experts say at least 30,000 children have already died in this crisis and 750,000 more Somalis, mostly women and children, are in acute need and will begin to die between Thanksgiving and Christmas unless they receive assistance. The famine in the early 1990s killed more than 250,000 Somalis, and this one is projected to kill several times more. The international community has only limited access to this population, due to al Shabaab interference, and no apparent strategy to address Somali’s dire humanitarian needs. There are options. The international community must look beyond grand diplomatic and military strategies to humanitarian initiatives that have worked in the past. If the United States and Europe expeditiously embrace these humanitarian-led initiatives and quietly facilitate them, the international community could avert the massive suffering and death facing hundreds of thousands in central and southern Somalia.

In August 2010, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) began sounding the alarm of widespread drought and potential famine in Somalia. In July 2011, the United Nations declared a famine in central and southern Somalia. Conditions have continued to deteriorate. Today 4 million Somalis, half of the country’s population, require humanitarian assistance; 3 million are in difficult to reach, insecure areas in al Shabaab controlled Somalia. Almost 1 million Somalis have become refugees in Kenya and Ethiopia. Mogadishu has swelled to more than a million residents, half of whom are displaced from other places in the country and are living in overcrowded camps in and around the city. But at the epicenter of the Somalia famine crisis are the 750,000 Somalis in acute need who will begin to die before the end of 2011 without assistance.

The recent rains are not bringing relief, only more water-borne and respiratory diseases to an already weakened population. Compounding these problems, the downpours are washing away many makeshift shelters in the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in and around Mogadishu. Even the remittances that sustain many Somali families are now threatened by al Shabaab as the terrorists confront companies with exorbitant taxes or closure. Coping options for Somali families are dissolving.

In regular Horn of Africa updates, the international community notes its assistance to the drought victims in Ethiopia and Kenya and how the assistance prevented famine in those two countries. Most updates gloss over the uncomfortable fact that they have not been able to provide sufficient humanitarian assistance on a regular basis to most Somalis and especially those in acute need. They mention the famine and cite the problems with al Shabaab–caused insecurity and the limitations it imposes on their humanitarian efforts. Then the discussions turn to the bigger puzzle of providing political stability in Somalia and curbing the threat of terrorism. We need to refocus. If we don’t, hundreds of thousands of Somalis will die in the next six months. The immediate crisis is starving Somalis.

For the past 20 years, the international community has tried to install a representative national government in Somalia and has not succeeded. In 1992, the United Nations along with the United States tried to end the famine, which they did, and establish a credible, stable central government. A stable central government never materialized, and the United States withdrew in 1994 and the United Nations a year later. Talks continued sporadically through the decade, leading to the creation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004.

The TFG has proven only marginally better than its opposition, including al Shabaab. By 2006, groups opposing the TFG, led by the Islamic Courts Union, controlled Mogadishu and much of central and southern Somalia. In December 2006, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia, swiftly securing Mogadishu and portions of central and southern Somalia. In 2007, the African Union deployed African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, mandated to support and protect the TFG and, within its capabilities, facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance. These duties thus far have been limited to Mogadishu. Beginning in 2009, the United States and the European Union began training TFG police and security services in hopes that it would lead to improved security and stability. Throughout this period, there have been at least eight different peace conferences, all without sustainable success.

Somali clans and warlords continue to roam much of Somalia and have been quick to fill power vacuums whenever and wherever they appear. Even today one has to travel with clan escorts within the city of Mogadishu and travel the countryside with warlord protection. This is not much different than the situation in 1991–1992 when I led humanitarian assistance efforts there for the U.S. government. Despite the best bilateral and multilateral efforts, nothing has succeeded, and 20 years later, Somalia is again on the verge of widespread starvation.

In the face of this dismal record, calls continue for military intervention and intense diplomatic efforts to reach a political remedy that will enable the international community to save the lives of the 750,000 Somalis who are at risk of starvation in the next couple of months. We know, however, that these kinds of initiatives, which have been unsuccessful so far in Somalia, take months to put together. Reaching agreement on a negotiating strategy and desired outcomes among several nations takes months. A call up of additional African Union troops usually takes even more time. And, time is one thing hundreds of thousands of Somalis do not have.

The international community needs to separate the political conundrum of Mogadishu from the humanitarian imperative of starving Somalis and turn to humanitarian diplomacy to begin to address the famine. Despite the vexatious political and military efforts of the international community over the past 20 years, members of the humanitarian community have quietly built relationships and trust with the myriad groups in central and southern Somalia. These quiet successes continue but international political and military initiatives and national antiterrorism legislation intrude and limit their effectiveness as the famine intensifies.

There are two models for humanitarian intervention in insecure conflict settings that have worked in the past. The first, “days of tranquility,” was implemented by UNICEF and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the civil war in El Salvador and used again in Uganda, Lebanon, Southern Sudan, Burundi, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. In each case, the warring factions ceased operations for an agreed upon number of days while the children on all sides of the conflict were vaccinated. Over time, “days of tranquility” also became “corridors of tranquility,” but the basic concept remained the same. The combatants stood down while humanitarian assistance was provided to children or civilian populations. While this technique may be the best way to maximize the amount of assistance that can be delivered in a short period of time, this model may be too public for the current political situation in central and southern Somalia.

The second and less public model has been used in Somalia since 1995, after the United States and United Nations left Somalia. Individual humanitarian organizations or groups of organizations negotiated with clan elders and warlords to reach agreement on providing humanitarian assistance, and even some longer-term livelihood assistance, to civilian pastoral and agro-pastoral populations. This was possible because the clan leaders and warlords were not monolithic groups and international organizations and NGOs engaged in the painstaking and dangerous process of identifying those Somali leaders who were concerned about the welfare of their people and acted to win their trust. Today too clan leaders, warlords, the TFG, and al Shabaab are not monolithic. There are elements in each that support assisting Somalis in need. The humanitarian operators on the ground in Somalia today are best placed to identify these leaders and win their confidence. This is the model most suited to the current situation in Somalia, and the international community should embrace it and support the humanitarians engaged in this effort.

Both options place heavy security burdens on the humanitarian community. Arranging and carrying out direct negotiations with sub-clan and clan elders, warlords, and the TFG and al Shabaab factions require patience and an understanding of Somalia’s immensely complicated social and political structure. Alliances among these groups and factions are in constant flux, and negotiating access for staff and projects is a painstaking and difficult process. The environment itself complicates the process as these leaders are surrounded by young gunmen with AK-47s who by mid-afternoon are high on qat and unpredictable. In this unstable brew, negotiators and implementers can and have become easy targets for kidnapping or worse, or they can just get caught in a spontaneous cross fire between factions over who knows what.

There are other problems with implementing either of these models, however, as the politics of nations undermine the trust-building efforts by these humanitarians and as antiterrorism legislation limits their engagement with Somali leaders. As noted in a recent National Democratic Institute survey, Somalis are not only unhappy with al Shabaab, but also with the debilitating effects of the TFG and foreign intervention, especially by the United States and Ethiopia. If this is true, visible U.S. leadership in humanitarian action in central and southern Somalia may be counterproductive.

The antiterrorism legislation of Europe and the United States circumscribes the activities of the humanitarian agencies in Somalia. The U.S. legislation is particularly troubling because it applies to U.S. and non-U.S. citizens and organizations anywhere in the world. The material support provisions prohibit essentially any form of assistance provided knowingly or unknowingly to terrorist organizations, and any contact with these individuals and organizations is now criminal. In Somalia, it is virtually impossible to negotiate access to needy Somalis in central and southern Somalia without negotiating with al Shabaab. Also, project implementation is hobbled because of delays in money transfers from banks, commodity purchases, and finalizing logistics contracts because companies are worried that doing business with humanitarian organizations working in Somalia might lead to violations of U.S. terrorism statutes. Verbal assurances by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Department of the Treasury that it will look with leniency on the activities of humanitarian organizations are insufficient for many NGOs and for the private sector. Explanations of these statutes remain confused, and until they are clarified, humanitarian action in Somalia cannot be pursued at full speed.

For the next six months, the international community should focus on the famine crisis in central and southern Somalia and take three steps immediately. First, governments should consider as part of their policy determination the impact on humanitarian operations of any political or military activities in central and southern Somalia and explicitly state that their implementation outweighs any negative impacts their action may have on humanitarian assistance efforts.

Second, the United States and Europe should for six months grant blanket waivers to their counterterrorism laws for organizations operating in central and southern Somalia. This need not be an unacceptable risk to the U.S. government or Europe. Waivers should only be granted to international organizations and NGOs that have a history of working with and being funded by U.S. and European governments. This will allow these organizations maximum flexibility to negotiate access to reach the maximum number of needy Somalis and deliver urgently needed food, water, medicines, medical supplies, and vaccinations.

Third, the international community should increase funding to the international organizations and NGOs that are active on the ground in central and southern Somalia and that have established working relationships with the various actors. These international organizations and NGOs have specific expertise that together can meet the needs of the Somalis requiring assistance. The donor community should provide as much financial assistance as each organization can prudently manage so they can reach the maximum number of at-risk Somalis. Rather than encouraging organizations new to Somalia to establish operations there, governments should urge these organizations to become partners with the international organizations and NGOs already working in the central and southern regions of the country and provide them with expert staff, commodities, logistical support, and financial resources.

The international community repeatedly states that it is the responsibility of nations to ensure that preventable deaths of this magnitude do not occur in our world. If the international community continues to mix humanitarian and political agendas and does not focus today on the core of the Somalia famine, it will fail hundreds of thousands of innocent Somalis.

Ambassador William J. Garvelink is a senior adviser with the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.