Somalia Remains the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World

The drought and famine in the Horn of Africa continues, with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) recently confirming that the famine in the Middle Shabelle, as well as among internally displaced populations in Afgoye and the Somali capital of Mogadishu, will continue through the end of the year. The result is a humanitarian crisis that has left an estimated 250,000 people at risk of imminent starvation, a population about the size of Madison, Wisconsin. While this number is lower than the 750,000 previously anticipated, the disaster remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with a child dying every six minutes in Somalia.

Political and military turmoil continues to overshadow the humanitarian crisis, where the nearly defunct Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has failed to rein in al Shabaab, an extremist group that largely controls south and central Somalia and has been terrorizing the broader region. It was al Shabaab’s alleged kidnapping of a disabled French tourist in Kenya that prompted the Kenyan military to advance into southern Somalia, making the already difficult task of getting assistance to Somalis all the more challenging.

Q1: What is the status of the famine in Somalia?

A1: More than 4 million Somalis, almost half the country’s population, require humanitarian assistance, including food, water, vaccinations, and health care, and 3 million of those are in conflict zones and difficult-to-reach areas. With an estimated 1.46 million displaced in Somalia, Mogadishu alone has become the site of over 300 internally displaced person (IDP) camps.

In November, FEWS Net and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) downgraded the number of Somalis facing imminent starvation—those who will die if not provided with assistance—from 750,000 to 250,000. That drop was as much due to a refinement of the numbers (a census completed in the IDP camps) as to improvements in the humanitarian situation. According to a FEWS Net release, the revised figure was a result of the humanitarian aid going into the region and more generous amounts of rainfall. Famine previously also existed in the Lower Shabelle, Bay, and Bakool regions. The situation, however, remains dire for many more than those 250,000.

Since the famine-critical number was reduced, conditions on the ground have deteriorated. The same rains that were previously suggested as a source of solace have impeded relief efforts according to the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The rains have inundated southern Somalia, causing logistical problems for the delivery of food, vaccinations, and medical supplies. In addition to accessibility challenges, rainfall increases the likelihood of waterborne illnesses spreading among the displaced populations. While rainfall would be positive for farmers, most have left their homes, leaving production levels low and creating further challenges as the rains continue. At the same time, food prices are prohibitively high for most Somalis. Overall, the severity of the humanitarian need has not diminished.

Q2: What has been the impact on the humanitarian situation of the arrival of Kenyan troops in Somalia?

A2: Insecurity remains the biggest question mark in the region, making it especially challenging to forecast the likelihood of an improved humanitarian situation in the coming months. A drought alone does not create the conditions for famine, but drought coupled with conflict does. As Kenya pushes further into southern Somalia, and al Shabaab retaliates against Kenyan forces, renewed mass migration will only complicate relief efforts.

It was widely acknowledged that Kenya’s actions alone would not be sufficient to ward off al Shabaab. Now two months into its operations, Kenya has gained serious support from its regional neighbors, as well as other countries. The Kenyan effort, however, remains mismanaged and is causing more harm than good. Recent reports have suggested that certain factions of al Shabaab have coalesced in the effort against Kenyan troops, making Kenya’s challenge far greater and the effects on refugees and IDPs all the more problematic.

Kenyan advancement of troops toward Kismayo has slowed humanitarian operations according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the ground. As the forces made their way in, thousands of displaced Somalis again had to move out of harm’s way. Each time the IDP population flees, they are able to take little with them and conditions only worsen, with children dying most frequently. In the midst of this disorder, warlords have begun to reassert themselves, demanding money and abusing the IDPs as they attempt to reach temporary safety.

Q3: What has been the impact of al Shabaab banning 16 humanitarian organizations?

A3: On November 28, al Shabaab banned 16 aid agencies from its areas of control in southern and central Somalia, regions where drought and famine conditions are most acute. Claiming that the groups were spies that sought to undermine its grasp, the group sent armed fighters to seize agencies’ equipment. A statement released by al Shabaab revealed a belief that the groups were engaged in “illicit activities and misconducts” that it had unearthed after a supposedly “meticulous yearlong review and investigation.” The statement also accused the groups of “financing, aiding, and abetting subversive groups seeking to destroy the basic tenets of [the] Islamic penal system” and “undermining the livelihoods and cultural values of the population,” asserting that the aid agencies were involved in the “misappropriation of funds, collection of data, and work[ing] with ‘international bodies’ to promote secularism, immorality and the ‘degrading values of democracy in an Islamic country.’”

Though the ban happened after the revised anticipated death toll was released by FEWS Net, the figure has yet to be changed. A statement released on behalf of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon demanded an immediate reversal of the ban, saying that “this brazen act prevents these organizations from providing life-saving assistance” and calling on al Shabaab to “vacate the premises and return seized property to the affected agencies and NGOs.” Al Shabaab, though, remains defiant.

Among the organizations forced out were UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and several other UN agencies, among the largest relief operations in Somalia. Many of the banned organizations had been operating in Somalia since the last famine in the 1990s and had extensive assistance networks throughout the region. It will take months for seasoned organizations unfamiliar with the clan structure in the region to establish and build the relationships necessary to provide humanitarian assistance on a regular basis.

Q4: What role have remittances played in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia?

A4: Remittances have played a critical role in cushioning the impact of the humanitarian crisis. In almost all famines, the problem is not an absolute shortage of food, but that food is in short supply and what is available costs more than most can afford. Remittances from American Somalis, estimated by the U.S. Department of Treasury at close to $100 million annually, have kept many families from hunger and starvation.

This lifeline is in danger of being cut. Sunrise Community Banks in Minneapolis, which transferred remittances from the Somali community in Minneapolis, the largest in the United States, is ceasing these operations. They are no longer willing to run the risk of violating the confusing set of U.S. antiterrorism regulations. Representative Keith Ellison (DFL-MN) has been able to convince Sunrise to continue operations through the end of the year, but it is unlikely that they will continue into the new year. The Washington Post reported that “Many big banks have stopped handling the transfers in recent years, saying the federal requirements designed to crack down on terror financing are too complex and not worth the risk. Sunrise Community Banks, a group of independently managed banks…stepped forward to fill the need.”

While support for terrorism remains of significant concern, the U.S. Departments of Treasury and State must clarify these regulations and offer guidance not only for the private sector, but also for the NGO community so they can respond to the Somali famine with maximum efficiency.

Q5: Has funding been adequate for humanitarian operations in Somalia?

A5: Roughly 80 percent of the United Nations’ appeal for relief aid for the Horn of Africa in 2011 has been met, with the United States, United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia leading the donor list. The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and its members have also been large non-UN appeal funders. Donor funding lagged after the 2011 appeal was issued and was inadequate for the first half of the year, picking up only after the famine was declared in July. UN officials have noted that more lives could have been saved had funding been available sooner. Several NGOs operating in Somalia have also noted that funding from the government and private donors has not been adequate to accomplish their programs.

The 2011 UN appeal funding gap has amounted to nearly $516 million. As outlined by the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Service (FTS), the effort in Somalia is 82 percent funded, with an unmet requirement of over $183 million.

The United Nations recently requested an additional $1.5 billion for 2012. While 50 percent higher than the 2011 appeal, the request reflects an urgent and growing need in the region.

Q6: Will the famine in Somalia subside in 2012?

A6: The humanitarian situation in Somalia will most likely become worse before it becomes better. Insecurity continues to cripple the region, with recent food spikes and rains also taking a toll. Stabilizing all of these factors will be critical to improving the humanitarian situation over the next year. Failure to do so will result in today’s drought and famine transitioning into the drought that hits parts of the Horn every two to three years.

If the Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are going to operate together throughout central and southern Somalia, they must have a robust civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) cell that can work closely with the United Nations, international organizations, and NGOs that will be providing humanitarian assistance in the same areas. The force should assign senior officers with decisionmaking authority and direct access to force commanders to quickly resolve any issues that may arise between the humanitarians and the militaries. Past experience in Somalia and other conflict settings has shown that the humanitarian operations will be fatally crippled and thousands will suffer and die unnecessarily without intense, daily coordination between the military forces and humanitarian operations.

The good news is that the United Nations is returning to Mogadishu after the first of the year. Planning should begin now to stand up an extensive Humanitarian Operation Center (HOC) at the UN headquarters where military forces and humanitarian agencies can meet daily to coordinate plans for humanitarian assistance operations throughout central and southern Somalia. A HOC was an early and effective coordination mechanism used by the international community in the Somalia famine in the early 1990s.

Unless there is broad cooperation among the AMISOM, KDF, TFG, United Nations, and NGOs, conditions in the first quarter of 2012 could deteriorate significantly and many more than 250,000 people could be at risk of imminent starvation. Because of widespread displacement of farmers and the loss of livestock, the recent rains were of little positive consequence. Food assistance and other humanitarian assistance will be required for the better part of 2012. Health services and vaccinations have been spotty due to the insecurity and a lack of access, so populations are in weakened conditions and children are vulnerable to deadly communicable diseases like measles. It usually takes three to five years to rebuild livestock herds. If the conflict continues and the displaced and refugees cannot return home, and if the humanitarian organizations are denied regular access to Somalis in need, conditions could deteriorate once again. In general, 2012 will be a difficult year for millions of Somalis, even with the assistance of the international community.

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 (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and in the early 1990s led USAID humanitarian assistance efforts in Somalia. Farha Tahir is program coordinator and research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

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.