Kuala Lumpur — Last month, the United Nations declared another famine threat in Somalia due to yet another drought in the Horn of Africa. Important lessons must be drawn from the Somalia famine of 2010-2012, which probably killed about 258,000 people, half of whom were under-five. This was the greatest tragedy in terms of famine deaths in the 21st century, and in recent decades since the Ethiopian famine of the late 1980s.
A 2013 report, for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU), used a variety of sources to estimate the likely death toll. The report - jointly commissioned and funded by FAO and the USAID-funded FEWS Net, and covering the period from October 2010 to April 2012 - was undertaken by independent experts from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Early warning, but no early action
Both FEWSNET and FSNAU had been warning of the impending tragedy with increasing urgency for some time, producing numerous early warning alerts besides directly briefing agencies and donor governments. Some critics claim that the early warnings may actually have been late, and even under-estimated the scale of the emerging crisis.
Many insist that the lateness of the intervention was responsible for many deaths. About 120,000 people had already died in the months before the UN declared a famine and intervened from mid-2011 after issuing 16 early warnings to indifferent responses. Many observers feel outraged about the international community's seeming indifference when it comes to African famine deaths.
If the 'international community' had responded quickly, early interventions could have been undertaken to minimize the resulting destitution and starvation. But an entire year of early warnings failed to elicit the needed responses. Donor governments did not increase aid, while most major humanitarian agencies did not step up their efforts. The system only began to act after famine was declared, i.e., long after the window of opportunity to avoid disaster had passed.
Politics in the way
The failure to respond was primarily due to politics. The worst affected areas in Somalia were believed to be controlled by as-Shabaab, which was engaged in a war with the Western-supported Somali transitional federal government (TFG). Western donor governments were reticent in case their aid fell into the hands of their adversary.
US laws imply that humanitarian workers in Somalia would have been liable to prosecution and 15 years imprisonment if the aid they were distributing fell into the hands of as-Shabaab. Such legal and other constraints contributed to the significant decline in aid to Somalia, which fell by half between 2008 and 2011, after the US government decision to significantly reduce humanitarian funding in as-Shabaab-controlled areas from 2008.
The WFP Executive Director at the time - Josette Sheeran, a Bush nominee - had a well known history of conflict with Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State. Ertharin Cousin, US Permanent Representative to the UN system in Rome for much of the period involved, went on to succeed Sheeran after Clinton blocked a second term for her. Meanwhile, the head of UNICEF, Tony Lake, had been US National Security Adviser at the time of the infamous 1993 'Black Hawk Down' incident in Somalia, imprinted in the American collective memory by the Hollywood movie.
By ignoring early warnings, cutting aid and constraining humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Western governments exacerbated the deteriorating situation, making famine more, not less likely. Instead of trying harder, humanitarian organizations presumed it would be politically unfeasible to raise resources. As-Shabaab's expulsion of the UN's World Food Programme in 2010 only made things worse, with another 16 UN agencies and international NGOs suffering similar fates in 2011 for allegedly "illicit activities and misconduct".
Thus, Western donors prioritized their geopolitical priorities over the urgent need to avoid famine. Rob Bailey, a senior research fellow specializing in food security at Chatham House in London, has even asserted that "In Somalia, western donors made famine more, not less likely".
As-Shabaab also paid little heed to the Somali population under its control. It not only restricted humanitarian access and rejected emergency aid, but also limited the ability of people to move besides taxing food production and distribution.
Both sides did not prioritize the growing need for massive, early, pro-active initiatives to stem the spreading destitution and to prevent famine. Donor governments only changed their stances after famine was declared, as public attention meant that the governments could not be seen to be the problem.
Although donor governments and humanitarian organizations were quick to announce that they had learnt the lessons of the Somali famine, things are now worse in some respects. In recent years, both the US and the EU have imposed strict sanctions on remittances to Somalia, which have cut the meagre resources available to destitute households. As income from such remittances served to mitigate the devastating impact of the last famine, it would be worse this time without them.
Meanwhile, aid and other humanitarian interventions remain highly politicized. While early warning systems are under critical scrutiny, there is nothing to ensure that early warnings lead to early action despite the existence of early warning systems and resources needed to prevent famine.