News / Africa

Instability Helped Create Famine in Somalia, says Former USAID Official

Andrew Natsios acknowledges the role of erratic rainfall, crop failure and increased food prices

Internally displaced Somali women queue to receive food-aid rations at a distribution center, in an IDP camp in the Somali capital Mogadishu, July 26, 2011
Internally displaced Somali women queue to receive food-aid rations at a distribution center, in an IDP camp in the Somali capital Mogadishu, July 26, 2011

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Politics plays a pivotal role in the onset of Somalia’s famine, say observers.

Andrew Natsios, a former head of the United States Agency for International Development [USAID], acknowledges the role of erratic rainfall and drought, crop failure and increased food prices.

No support for agriculture

But politics, or in Somalia’s case, a lack of a functioning political system, has likely made a bad situation even worse.

“If there was simply a crop failure and there was a competent government in the country,” said Natsios, “(it) can provide food to the people who are affected as they do in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania…”

The government is not able to provide support for farmers or for food production.

Somalia is headed by a Transitional Federal Government with powers limited to parts of the capital Mogadishu.  The rest of the country is governed either by the radical Islamic group al-Shabab or by local clans.

Security, and expanding the government’s reach, are the most important issues facing the TFG.

Recently, Islamic militants have killed officials in a bid to destabilize the government.  They say famine is only political rhetoric by the transitional government and the West.  Humanitarian assistance has been hampered by the failure of al-Shabab to ensure the safety of relief workers, who have been kidnapped and killed.

Last year, Al-Shabab kicked out aid agencies that refused to follow its directives, which banned women aid workers.

The politics of hunger

The last famine to hit Somalia came in 1992 on the heels of the overthrow of the country’s last president Siad Barre, with over quarter of a million people killed in the ensuing crisis.

“A civil war,” said Natsios, is what caused the drought to turn into a famine that killed so many people…It was a terrible famine. I remember it very disctinctly.”

Warlords that took control of the country after the fall of Barre have failed to consolidate their power.

“Since Barre’s collapse,” said Natsios, “there has been no functioning national government.  There have been attempts to create one, but they have failed.”

He said politics also exacerbated hunger in at least two other countries, including Sudan.  Natsios said during that country’s long civil war, Khartoum tried to prevent food from reaching the south.   In Asia, Pyongyang’s policies led to famine in North Korea, a crisis chronicled by Natsios in a book on the topic.

After almost two decades of civil war, Somalia is now suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The United Nations estimates that more than three million people are in urgent need of food -- almost half the population.

Last week, the United Nations declared famine in two areas of Somalia. Experts and humanitarian organizations agree that the word is not to be used lightly. The U.N. has a list of conditions that must be present in a crisis before it may be called “famine.”  Among them:  malnutrition rates exceeding 30 percent and more than two people per 10,000 people are dying each day.

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