Meeting the Challenge of Drought and Famine in the Horn of Africa

The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Horn of Africa is becoming clearer by the day. The numbers of people affected by drought and famine are mind-boggling: at least 12.4 million people are in need of emergency assistance across five countries. Somalia is the worst affected, and the United Nations has declared famine conditions in five areas of the country, all of them under the control of Al Shabaab, an extremist group designated a terrorist entity by the United States. Its continued denial of full access to humanitarian organizations means that emergency assistance remains out of reach for more than 2 million people.
Q1: There’s been criticism of the international response to the disaster. Is it justified?
A1: After a slow start, the relief effort has accelerated sharply in recent weeks. Emergency assistance is being channeled to the vast refugee camps on the Kenyan and Ethiopian side of the Somali border. In addition, food rations and medical supplies are now reaching Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, where more than 100,000 internally displaced Somalis have fled. This effort has been given a boost by the departure of Al Shabaab fighters from most of the city, a move it has described as a “tactical withdrawal.” The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has completed its first airlift to Mogadishu in five years.
Nevertheless, a huge funding shortfall is hampering the humanitarian effort. The United Nations estimates that it needs an additional $1.2 billion to respond effectively to the disaster. The United States has been the largest single country donor, providing more than $580 million this fiscal year, including new funds announced on August 11. This is a significant sum but insufficient. It is only one-sixth of the amount that Congress appropriated for the Haiti earthquake last year, which impacted fewer people. The modest response is understandable given the tight budget environment in Washington. But efforts to tackle the steadily worsening crisis could be undermined in the coming months. U.S. officials have pointed out that the large-scale cuts to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) due to be debated by Congress in the fall would lead to a drastic scaling back of emergency food assistance for the crisis. In addition, the drought and famine have failed to draw the expected response from the public, given that it is a slow-onset disaster, which lacks the visceral impact of a one-off event like an earthquake or tsunami. And the difficulties of accessing the worst-hit areas in Somalia means that the media has struggled to tell the story. For much of the public, the crisis will remain abstract until it is accompanied by the kinds of haunting images of suffering that triggered a flood of donations in response to previous famines in the region.
Q2: Aside from resources, what other factors are hampering the international response?
A2: The difficulty of getting humanitarian assistance to areas of Somalia controlled by Al Shabaab has complicated relief efforts. The UN World Food Program suspended its operations in southern Somalia at the start of 2010 because of threats to its staff and extortion by the militants. Most other aid agencies were expelled from Somalia shortly afterward. In a statement in July, an Al Shabaab spokesman urged them to return. He has since reversed his position, accusing the United Nations of exaggerating the scale of the disaster. In addition, U.S. sanctions against Al Shabaab have created a bureaucratic tangle that has yet to be entirely resolved. Department of Treasury regulations mean that aid organizations receiving U.S. funds risk prosecution if any of the money ends up in the hands of Al Shabaab. These restrictions, combined with safety concerns, account for the continued reluctance of relief organizations to operate in Somalia. The U.S. government has tried to encourage their return by saying that aid groups need not fear prosecution provided they make honest attempts to ensure that aid is not diverted. But this policy shift has failed to reassure many of these groups, who have asked for more clarity, including a written statement from the Department of State.
Q3: Does the famine in Somalia increase the chances that Al Shabaab can be uprooted?
A3: It would be premature to talk of the demise of Al Shabaab, but the crisis has placed the group under enormous strain. The outbreak of famine exposes in the clearest way possible the inability of Al Shabaab to govern the areas under its control. Famines are not wholly natural disasters; they have political and human causes, mainly related to the unwillingness or inability of governing authorities to move food supplies to those who need them. It is no coincidence that while drought is affecting a wide region of eastern Africa, famine has only occurred in Somalia. The authorities in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya possess enough bureaucratic competence to ensure that emergency supplies can be transported to the majority of those who need it.
The famine label is clearly an embarrassment to Al Shabaab, and its authority is being openly questioned by elders in the worst-affected areas. Although its financial base remains solid, Al Shabaab is militarily and politically weak. Pre-existing fissures within the organization have widened further between factions pursuing a nationalist agenda and others that wish to orient themselves more closely with Al Qaeda. Leaders with constituencies in the famine-affected regions have been more forthright in calling for Western assistance, bringing them into conflict with more hard-line figures such as Al Shabaab’s overall leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, whose position is coming under increasing threat. Unfortunately, there is no alternative government-in-waiting ready to exploit these weaknesses. The internationally backed Transitional Federal Government is weak, hopelessly corrupt, and rivals Al Shabaab in unpopularity.
Q4: Can long-term measures be implemented to prevent a repeat of the crisis in the Horn of Africa?
A4: One of the frustrating features of this catastrophe is that it was predicted and preventable. Of course, nothing can be done to change the erratic rainfall patterns that in recent years have accelerated the cycle of drought in this vulnerable region of Africa. Nonetheless, the underlying human and political causes of the crisis can be addressed. This was a point taken up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in comments on the situation on August 11, where she stressed the importance of long-term investments in agricultural science, farming inputs and infrastructure, market development, land reform, and a sustained focus on good governance. The centerpiece of these efforts is the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative, a $3.5-billion effort to tackle food security. It is unfortunate that it has taken a disaster of this magnitude to raise the profile of this initiative, but it can only be hoped that the current crisis will help concentrate the minds of governments around the world to orient their food security policies toward crisis prevention rather than expensive and inefficient crisis response.
Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions 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.

Richard Downie