Somali boy, by Monica's Dad

Famine politics

Ellen Lammers | 05 September 2011

Robert Papstein taught me that famine is as much the engineered outcome of disastrous politics as the simple result of unforgiving drought

Robert Papstein taught me that famine is as much the engineered outcome of disastrous politics as the simple result of unforgiving drought. At the time, the early nineties, I was struggling with an essay about the 1984 Ethiopian famine for his course on the Horn of Africa. Papstein was always on his way to or from his beloved, and newly independent, Eritrea. Sadly, 20 years later, few of the post-liberation promises have been redeemed – as is extensively documented in Gaim Kibreab’s Eritrea. A dream deferred (2010).

The Horn of Africa, where for many years Cold War rivalries were turned into proxy wars, continues to be plagued by political turmoil and violent conflict. And once again, it is plagued by famine. Somalia has been hit the worst this time – but this is not the country that receives the largest part of the international aid that is on its way. 

Not surprisingly, politics are the reason. The WFP, for instance, has no access to the southern districts of Somalia, which are most affected. This area is controlled by Al-Shabaab, the group (labelled terrorist by the US) that is caught up in a brutal war with the Somali transitional government that is backed by the West.

Unni Karunakara, president of the board of Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF), says in an interview with Channel 4 that ‘There is a long history of politicisation of aid in Somalia and this drought has tipped the Somali people over the edge.’

In an article in The Guardian last Friday he expresses his concern that the emergency in Somalia is ‘being portrayed by many aid organisations and the media in one-dimensional terms, such as "famine in the Horn of Africa" or "worst drought in 60 years". But only blaming natural causes ignores the complex geopolitical realities exacerbating the situation and suggests that the solution lies in merely finding funds and shipping enough food.’

The reality is – and he refers to this in covert terms – that humanitarian agencies need to make tough choices if they want to reach and serve victims of famine, which may involve compromising some of their independence or neutrality. Such very tricky choices have become part and parcel of current humanitarianism – see also the article A matter of principles by Dennis Dijkzeul and Joost Herman - even if general media campaigns to raise money for the famine victims will not readily portray this. 

On his recent visit to the region, Unni also spoke to Somali refugees who had recently arrived in Dadaab, the refugee camp in Northern Kenya where another friend of mine, Cindy Horst, has conducted long-term research since the late 1990s. Currently at PRIO in Norway, she has kept in close contact with many of the refugees and aid workers in the Dadaab camps. People who have lived in the camps for as many as twenty (!) years, speak of the conditions of the newcomers with horror. Interestingly, they have devised their own emergency support for their compatriots in response to the failing international aid response. In a blog post on e-IR, Cindy writes that ‘a number of youth, in cooperation with community leaders, religious leaders and others established a ‘Community Emergency Response Team’ (CERT) … [which] … provides assistance to those in greatest need. It also offers the arrivals help with finding a temporary place to stay and plots are being bought in the region to temporarily host them until a new camp will be opened. The refugee-initiated support has expanded and money, food and other items are sent from Wajir, Garissa and Nairobi by the Somali business community and others in a position to assist. The mosques play an important role in collections and distributions as well, and so does the Islamic charity Al-Haramain.’

BBC World Service yesterday aired a discussion about whether international charities should be making comments about the difficulties of aid distribution in the midst of a crisis. Unni Karunakara, quoted on The Guardian’s global development page, believes that the public ‘need to understand the reality of the challenges in delivering that aid. We don’t have the right to hide it from people. We have a responsibility to engage the public with the truth.’

I agree. Let this be one of the many superficial renditions of realities in Africa that cry to be undone. 

Photo credit main picture: Somali boy, by Monica's Dad