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Aid delivery remains a central obstacle in Somalia's famine

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Feisal Omar/Reuters

(Read caption) A displaced man stands outside his temporary shelter in a war-ravaged building in Howlwadaag district in Somalia's capital Mogadishu on Sept. 9, 2011.

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In the damp, gray dawn in this remote Somali bush town, 25,000 men, women and children, their rib cages protruding, their eyes listless, shuffled with their last bit of strength today toward outdoor kitchens for a scoop of food. Hundreds, too feeble to eat, died while they waited. […]

“Here is hell,” said Mr. [Geoff] Loane [of the Red Cross], who worked in Ethiopia during the 1984-85 famine. “I thought I would never see Ethiopia again, and I didn’t think we would allow it to happen again.”

But Mr. Loane made that exasperated remark to The New York Times in 1992. And it has happened again.

A Google search for “Somalia famine” turns up a host of articles from the past 20 years about recurring periods of drought and devastation unfolding in the Horn of Africa. They have taken place with such frequency and little variation in details that it is a wonder how often disaster relief is discussed with little or no reference to root causes.

But the epic proportions of the 2011 Somalia famine should force a conversation, argues longtime Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus, beginning with a focus on how the political actors largely responsible for the country’s dysfunction are now blocking aid delivery as well.

“The international response to date has been shockingly inadequate not just because funds for humanitarian aid have fallen short, but because of the absence of political will to take bold diplomatic action to remove impediments to the delivery of aid,” Menkhaus wrote in a paper published by the Enough Project yesterday.

The 2011 Somalia famine – the worst in 60 years – currently threatens three-quarters of a million people. Nearly half of the country’s population needs emergency assistance. The region is inherently more prone to drought than almost anywhere else in the world, but war and the absence of a functioning government has shredded Somalis’ ability to cope and survive, Menkhaus told Enough in an interview last month.

Despite the long lead-time the international community had to prepare for famine this time around, and years of experience providing relief in this part of the world, assistance fails to reach those who need it most because of blockages and diversions by both the militant Al Shabab group and its sworn enemy, Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government, or TFG. As a result, the bulk of the assistance can only get as close as the Kenyan border region, a walk of several days. Writes Menkhaus:

This is not a famine relief strategy – it is a macabre game of “Survivor,” rewarding those lucky and strong enough to straggle across the border with a prize of shelter, food rations, and the prospect of being warehoused in a refugee camp for the next 20 years.

So what Menkhaus proposes is a “diplomatic surge” leveled simultaneously at the Shabab and the TFG to open routes for aid delivery. It must be clear to both sides that anyone found diverting or withholding aid from civilians will be held accountable. Condemnation of Shabab’s tactics is a given, but Menkhaus advocates taking a similarly hard line with the TFG.

The time frame for organizing a diplomatic surge is short, and the strongest public pressure must come from a range of Islamic actors, including some newly liberated societies in the Middle East who may still be too preoccupied internally to engage beyond their borders. But the United States has a key coordinating role to play. President Obama must personally get involved, Menkhaus argues, to jump start the initiative.

The alternatives – doing nothing beyond the typical, unsatisfactory relief effort or enabling a regional military operation to develop – are deeply unappealing, especially when diplomatic options still exist.

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The 2011 Somalia famine risks spurring the post-mortem regret of other humanitarian catastrophes – Rwanda, Darfur – where hundreds of thousands of victims fell prey to the motives of ideologically driven, self-interested, and powerful in their countries. Menkhaus asks: “Will the same be true for the Obama administration and other world leaders when they look back on the 2011 Somalia famine and ask: Was that the best we could do?”

Laura Heaton blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.


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