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Helping famine-stricken Somalia: It's not as easy as sending food

August 4, 2011 | 12:33 pm

Faminie in Africa

If only helping the people starving in Somalia were as simple as sending food. In a July 22 Op-Ed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, he pleaded with readers:

That is why I reach out today: to focus global attention on this crisis, to sound the alarm and to call on the world's people to help Somalia in this moment of greatest need. To save the lives of the people at risk — the vast majority of them women and children — we need about $1.6 billion in aid. So far, international donors have given only half that amount. To turn the tide, to offer hope in the name of our common humanity, we must mobilize worldwide.

Of course, food is just part of the solution for a region afflicted by a severe drought, unrest and corruption. But we have to start somewhere, and there should be a sense of urgency surrounding this very basic need. Without food these people will die.

Still it’s possible to understand the instinct people might have to hold onto their money, especially after Tuesday’s anti-climactic debt deal and Thursday’s news about the Dow Jones industrials plunging 400 points. And then there’s the additional reservation about food possibly not making it to its intended location because of violent interventions by the terrorist organization Shabab, which controls much of Southern Somalia.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration did its partto help create an easier path for humanitarian aid groups to deliver food. Here’s what opinionators are saying must come next:

Hold leaders who don’t help accountable

Charles Kenny, Foreign Policy:

For all its horror, starvation is also one of the simpler forms of mortality to prevent -- it just takes food.  Drought, poor roads, poverty -- all are contributing factors to the risk of famine, but sustenance in the hands of the hungry is a pretty foolproof solution. As a result, famine deaths in the modern world are almost always the result of deliberate acts on the part of governing authorities. That is why widespread starvation is a crime against humanity and the leaders who abet it should be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Help increase agricultural productivity

Stewart M. Patrick, The Atlantic:

The causes of this emergency are complex, and the international effort to address the situation is well-intentioned, but the crisis demands a broader and dramatic reaction, which sadly, remains improbable. […]

Even if aid organizations could penetrate the areas held by al-Shabaab, food aid alone will not eliminate the underlying causes of the crisis mentioned above. Barring the construction of a well-functioning state by internal forces--which sadly appears unlikely given the past twenty years -- addressing the underlying causes would require long-term strategy from the international community. The 9,200-strong African Union peacekeeping force currently restricted to Mogadishu will not be able to provide political stability, and UN member states, including the United States show little appetite for a robust mission in the region. Still, the international community has the power to tailor food aid that doesn't disrupt local economies and increases agricultural productivity so farmers can save surpluses, through support for technological improvement like irrigation systems.

Establish a government that respects basic human rights

Washington Post editorial:

Notwithstanding the drought, much of this misery is man-made. Al-Shabab has driven out Western aid groups, which have not operated in southern Somalia since early 2010. It has waged perpetual war against the Somali government and U.N. peacekeeping forces. It has killed Western aid workers. According to a report in the New York Times, it has diverted water resources from poor farmers and imprisoned starving people trying to escape the country. […]

The only durable answer to Somalia’s famine is the establishment of a government that can control the entire country and that respects basic human rights. Sadly, there is little prospect of that. But the United States and other Western governments must do what they can to prevent mass starvation.

Foster peace and stability

EJ Hogendoorn and Ben Dalton, CNN’s Global Public Square

It’s no surprise that the crisis is much less serious in Somaliland and Puntland, autonomous regions in northern Somalia that have been relatively stable. Immediate, short-term food aid must be followed by longer-term efforts to promote stability and good governance. That means looking beyond the narrow focus of defeating Al-Shabaab. Given a corrupt and ineffective Transitional Federal Government, international donors should not focus exclusively on the central government in Mogadishu, but also support stable, responsive and accountable local authorities. Because of longstanding clan competition and mistrust, a decentralized form of government is much more appropriate in the current Somali environment.

Here's a look at the unrest and devastation in Somalia:



PHOTOS: Somalis flee war and drought

Helping Somalia: The fight against famine

The world's biggest problem? Too many people

Overpopulation debate comes to one conclusion

-- Alexandra Le Tellier

Photo: A child from southern Somalia eats a piece of bread inside a destroyed building where people from the south have camped out after fleeing prolonged drought in their region. Credit: Farah Abdi Warsameh / Associated Press / July 11, 2011

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