Yesterday, the United Nations declared a famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of southern Somalia. While outside observers are in some ways “getting used to famine,” the technical designation of famine carries a dire meaning that goes beyond the typical meaning of “famine.” The UN notes (see first link) that
It is the first time since 1991-92 that the UN has declared famine in a part of Somalia.
Famine is declared when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, more than two people per every 10,000 die per day, and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Mr. Bowden warned that malnutrition rates in Somalia are currently the highest in the world, with peaks of 50 per cent in certain areas of the country’s south.
In the two regions of southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates are above 30 per cent, with deaths among children under the age of five exceeding six per 10,000 per day in some areas. In the last few months, tens of thousands of Somalis have died as a result of causes related to malnutrition, the majority of them children.
Consecutive droughts have affected the country in the last few years while the ongoing conflict has made it extremely difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the south. Nearly half of the Somali population – 3.7 million people – are now estimated to be in crisis, with an estimated 2.8 million of them in the south.
The answer to the crisis would seem to be aid from the outside, but control of southern Somalia by al Shabab, an Islamic militia designated as a terrorist group by the US State Department, poses a legal and political wrinkle. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Tara Vassefi explain, “two competing desires — to help the Somali people, and to prevent money from reaching militant groups — sets up a real dilemma for American policymakers.”
Washington’s working solution to this dilemma is a conditional delivery of aid.
The deputy administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Donald Steinberg, said the aid must not benefit al-Shabab.
“What we need is assurances from the World Food Programme and from other agencies, the United Nations or other agencies, both public and in the non-governmental sector, who are willing to go into Somalia who will tell us affirmatively that they are not being taxed by al-Shabab, they are not being subjected to bribes from al-Shabab, that they can operate unfettered,” Mr Steinberg told the BBC.
I believe that giving aid to southern Somalia is the right decision for two reasons.
- I think it is the morally laudable option. I have been struck, in some of the discussion around the issue, by the lack of compassion some commentators seem to show for ordinary people in southern Somalia. To these commentators, all that seems to matter is denying funds to terrorists, regardless of the human costs. I do not think giving relief will be completely simple and straightforward, but I think it is a worthy thing to do, even given the risks.
- I think giving aid is the wise move politically. If the US increases its efforts to help alleviate suffering in Somalia, it will take pressure off of countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which are already seeing massive surges in refugee flows from Somalia. That will help reduce chaos in the region. Additionally, working in a limited fashion with al Shabab to deliver aid could both improve the image of the US in Somalia and could create future channels for dialogue with al Shabab. In an age when talk of negotiations with the Taliban has become common, is it out of the question to think that at some point the US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) might negotiate with al Shabab?
The response from hardliners, of course, will be that I am naive. I would challenge the hardliners to answer the same charge: was it not naive to expect that Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia from 2006-2009 would bring an end to political Islam there? Was it not naive to think that backing the TFG would result in anything more than a protracted stalemate, or at best a slow – and possibly meaningless – advance against al Shabab within Mogadishu? Is it not naive to think that 10,000 African Union peacekeepers and a few American drones can undo the effects of years of brutalization and war in southern Somalia? Al Shabab may be in retreat in Mogadishu, but its tenacity – and potential for longevity – makes it likely to retain its importance within the politics of southern Somalia over the medium term. Aid flows can always be stopped. But for now, it seems worthwhile to feed the starving and to see what political opportunities may come of it. I believe Washington has made the right decision here.