Manufacturing a famine: How Somalia crisis became a fund-raising opportunity

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The poor performance of the March to May rains has resulted in an acute scarcity of pasture and water, as well as rapid decline of livestock productivity and value. Pictures: File

This woman and her child head to their home in a refugee camp. The proposal by a Danish opposition coalition that Somali refugees in the country be sent to Kenya is preposterous. FILE PHOTO 

Posted  Sunday, October 2   2011 at  18:59

On July 18 this year, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea tabled a report to the UN Security Council.

The report stated that United Nations agencies, international humanitarian aid organisations and local Somali non-governmental organisations had been forced to move their operations or cease them entirely in many parts of Somalia, mainly due to “an alarming void in international humanitarian aid and development assistance,” and also because of “threats from elements of Al Shabaab,” who control much of southern Somalia.

Two days later, the UN’s World Food Programme — the largest distributor of food aid to Somalia — declared that Bakool and Lower Shebelle, two regions in southern Somalia, had been hit by the worst famine in 20 years.

The UN agency further claimed that 3.7 million people across the country — almost half the total Somali population – were in danger of starving, of which 2.8 million were in the south.

This declaration led to a massive multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign by UN and international humanitarian agencies. Meanwhile, journalists began referring to the famine as a “biblical event.” By September, Time magazine was reporting that the famine had expanded and that a full 12.4 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda were at risk from hunger.

The magazine also stated that in southern Somalia, 63 per cent of the population was either starving or at risk of it.

These figures did not convince many Somali analysts, including Ahmed Jama, a Nairobi-based agricultural economist and former consultant with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. 

“I was disturbed by the WFP announcement because Lower Shebelle is Somalia’s breadbasket and had even experienced a bumper harvest last year,” he told this writer.

UN agencies, including WFP, use an Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) scale developed by the FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) to determine levels of food insecurity, which range from “generally food secure” to “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.”

IPC uses a number of indicators to pronounce a famine: Acute malnutrition in more than 30 per cent of children; two deaths per 10,000 people daily; a pandemic illness; access to less than four litres of water and 2,100 kilocalories of food a day; large scale displacement; civil strife; and complete loss of assets and income. 

Jama says that the IPC scale is too broad to be useful because it could apply to virtually every African country, where malnutrition and poverty levels are generally high.

“In the case of Somalia, the timing of the UN’s famine appeal appeared suspect, as it coincided with the beginning of the peak harvest season in July and the start of the short rains, known as Deyr, in September,” he adds. “And this is not the first time that a famine has been declared. It seems that in the past 20 years, Somalia has been in a permanent state of crisis, instead of moving towards development despite the myriad development agencies operating in the country.”

Temporary migration

“Historically, people from Bay and Bakool move to Lower Shebelle during a drought and go back during the short rainy season between August and September,” says Jama. “So, even if there are people who face starvation in food insecure areas, their migration to Lower Shebelle is usually temporary, and does not warrant a declaration of famine.”

Luca Alivoni, the head of FAO-Somalia insists, however, that the food crisis in southern Somalia affected farmers more than pastoralists in the north because farmers tend to stay on their farms “to protect their crops”, whereas pastoralists migrate with their animals to areas where there is pasture.

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