ON JULY 20, the UN declared a famine in southern Somalia. This is the first official famine in 25 years.
It is estimated that some 10,000 children had already died before famine was declared. In August the UN increased the number of regions of the country declared in famine and predicted the situation would worsen.
The famine has triggered a refugee crisis, with almost a million people fleeing to neighbouring countries. Overcrowding in refugee camps has led to further health problems, like outbreaks of measles and cholera. Infant mortality has trebled.
The UN estimates that 12 million people are at risk across the region. It says it needs $2 billion for the relief effort in Somalia and has so far received less than half. It is clear that this disaster will get worse before it gets better.
But what causes famine today? A common view is that there are more people to feed than there is food produced. The world is more populated than it has ever been. But food production has outstripped population growth at every stage. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation points out that there is now 15 per cent more food available per person than 20 years ago, even with a population increase of 1.8 billion.
The immediate explanation for the famine in Africa is the severe drought. An unusual La Nina has disrupted seasonal rainfall. In Somalia, this caused crop failure and in some places a loss of up to 60 per cent of livestock.
But blaming famine on natural disasters lets governments off the hook, ignoring the fact that the response to a crisis can dramatically reduce its impact.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network had been forecasting the threat of famine since last November, so preventative steps could have been taken. Tony Burns, director of operations for Saacid, the oldest NGO in Somalia, said in an interview, “the lack of food stockpiling reflects badly on the international humanitarian community”.
Somalia’s chaotic state has undoubtedly made the situation worse. It has had only six months of stable government in 20 years.
Some have tried to blame the impotence of the relief effort on an Islamic militia, Al Shabab. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton claimed that Al Shabab was, “preventing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia”.
However not everyone agrees. Anna Shaaf of the International Committee of the Red Cross said, “the limits are more on the side of logistics than access. In fact Unicef and the Red Cross consider purchasing food and scheduling flights as their main concern”. Tony Burns of Saacid said that while Al Shabab may be blocking escape routes for refugees in the south they are, “not monolithic… they are hardcore in some places but very moderate in others”.
The New York Times noted that emergency efforts were being hamstrung by “American government rules that prohibit material support to the militants, who often demand taxes for allowing aid deliveries to pass through.”
The US is directly responsible for the rise of Al Shabab. It grew out of the ruins of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which arose from attempts to impose a system of justice in opposition to the warlords that dominated the country after 1991.
When the ICU began to develop into a central government, the US backed an Ethiopian invasion in 2006, fearing Islamic control. The US continues to back warlords trying to install a transitional government that has little popular support among ordinary Somalis.
The economic policies imposed by the US are also to blame. Until the end of the 1970s Somalia was actually food self sufficient.
But the policies of the IMF and the World Bank have distorted underdeveloped economies by encouraging them to grow cash crops for the world market.
Agricultural development aid has been cut from 20 per cent to 4 per cent of total development aid. However the same standards don’t apply in the developed world, where subsidies have risen to more than $250 billion. That is more than 70 times the assistance given to help farmers in the third world.
Local farmers are further undermined when the subsidised food produced in rich nations is dumped onto the market, making it impossible to compete with the subsidised produce.
Governments conjured up trillions for the bank bailouts during the financial crisis and yet the aid fund for Somalia is struggling to reach even $1 billion. The tragedy of the situation is that famine today is entirely preventable. Modern production, transport and storage make the distribution of food easier than ever. At the same time as conjuring up the means to end hunger, the dynamics of capitalism block this potential.