Looking Back on Somalia

Somalia-famine-007Between October 2010 and April 2012, Somalia was wracked by the world’s worst famine in 25 years. The humanitarian response on the ground was typically heroic, but international donations were sluggish. Last week, new figures released suggested thousands more were killed than originally thought.

Somalia – another arbitrary geographic unit where people fundamentally no different to anyone anywhere else on the planet have been left to endure decades of abject suffering.

Independence from the British Empire brought a brief but dysfunctional flash of Western-style Somali democracy in the 1960s, before an army coup replaced it with a dictatorial pro-Russian regime. The seventies saw stuttering attempts to meld Soviet-style economics with Islam, but after a war with more straightforwardly Marxist Ethiopia lost it the USSR’s backing, Somalia’s rulers became increasingly violent and repressive, largely binning ideology in favour of clinging on to power anyway they could.

They failed, and by 1991 the regime had been toppled by bickering clans who quickly turned on each other, making way for a typically cataclysmic African civil war. Twenty-two years and several unity government-attempts later, fighting still continues. Swathes of the country have been ungoverned for two decades, others have declared themselves independent, and the rise of Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda-affiliated Red Cross-expelling radical Islamists with guns, has only exacerbated the crisis.

The war is thought to have killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Millions more ordinary Somalis have been left acutely undernourished, voiceless and marginalised, easy prey for violent and often lawless militias on both sides of the conflict.

Then, in 2010, the rains failed. 2011 saw no improvement. The result was East Africa’s worst drought in decades. Withered and barely functioning, the Somali state was completely unable to respond to the humanitarian emergency that followed. By the mid-2011, a region-wide food crisis had been declared, and 13 million people were thought to be in danger. Livelihoods were annihilated as crops failed and cattle herds died.

Aid charities quickly intervened, but decades of infrastructure-shredding warfare meant accessing the kind of remote rural areas most in need was incredibly difficult. More gravely, the international community was out to lunch. Given its horrible magnitude, the situation received risibly little Western media attention. The total donated from rich nations was utterly inadequate and the consequences were disastrous. We now think 260,000 people died. That’s roughly equivalent to the population of a city like Plymouth or an average sized London Borough being wiped out in two years. Half of them were children under the age of five.

Famines are usually presented as natural phenomena – environmental spasms that we’re powerless to prevent. But famines are political. Obviously nature plays its part – in Somalia, the rains failed, farmer’s crops failed, their livestock died and food prices skyrocketed. But two years of poor rain, while devastating, shouldn’t be enough to cause mass starvation when governments exist, nominally to look after the people they represent.

A functioning state might have been able to effectively respond to the emergency, but decades of political strife have left Somalia as anything but. If the Somali government can’t act to save its own people then it falls to the international community to intervene. Here, though, it’s the grand, prevailing political consensus that unites governments across the Western and Westernised world that’s at fault.  

If we treated humanitarian crises with the urgency and seriousness they deserve, we could effectively abolish starvation. When a famine looked imminent, we could mobilise every available resource to react immediately to the crisis, get in there quickly and save hundreds of thousands of lives. We don’t, predominantly because that would be expensive in such a way that might slightly dent our materially abundant lifestyles. The manic pace, terrifying triviality and ingrained self-centredness of the modern world keeps us completely insulated from the degree of suffering that exists elsewhere in the world.

But the problem is broader than that. That same political consensus is perfectly content for countries like Somalia to exist in chronic poverty. And when millions of people are already impoverished and going hungry, it doesn’t take much disruption to the food supply for thousands to die. Yes, Western countries give money away to areas in need, and occasionally make a lot of noise about their commitment to ‘the Third World’. But given both the scale of the problems that exist and our tremendous collective wealth, our contributions are pitifully small.

A sizeable wedge of public opinion is completely against what they see – or at least what is portrayed to them – as spending money on problems that aren’t ours. Critics roared at David Cameron for pledging to up the UK’s annual aid spending to 0.7% of our GDP. It’s all part of same anti-egalitarian narrative that’s been hammered into the popular consciousness by politicians and right-wing media outlets over decades.

When crises hit, then, the life-saving cash largely has to come from individual donors, some multimillionaires who’ve mercifully realised their obligation to people not as supremely lucky as themselves, but mostly ordinary people with ordinary incomes.  

Their generosity saves hundreds of thousands of lives. But, firstly, it’s rarely if ever enough. And secondly, it relies on people being kept informed of what’s happening in the world. If the media ignores an emerging crisis, it’s likely that thousands who might have donated will never hear about it. The UN estimates that a billion dollars is needed just to meet the basic needs of starving Somalis. Less than a fifth of that has been donated so far. Charity is a rare force for good in a frequently bleak world, but it’s far too sporadic and unstable a force to effectively underwrite the lives of millions of people. But while more radical, more permanent solutions to the dire state a horribly large proportion of the human race finds itself in are decried as mad and bad and a hate-fuelled affront to the righteously hard-toiling of Tunbridge Wells (and their equivalents across the rich world), charity will have to keep heaving the burden.

Somalia still faces the most profound food insecurity crisis anywhere in the world. 2012 yielded a decent enough harvest to ‘end’ the famine. But that doesn’t mean the crisis has been resolved, just that it’s moved out of its most catastrophic phase. Millions across Somalia and East Africa more broadly are still dangerously undernourished and dependent on aid to survive. If you can – and there will be plenty of people who legitimately can’t as they struggle to get by in Austerity Britain – please consider giving some money to one of the brilliant aid organisations trying to save lives in one of the planet’s poorest regions.

Donate to Oxfam: https://donate.oxfam.org.uk/Give?pscid=ps_ggl_G-042-Emergencies-East-Africa

Donate to Doctors Without Borders: http://www.msf.org.uk/

Donate to Christian Aid: http://www.christianaid.org.uk/emergencies/current/east-africa-appeal/east-africa-appeal-email.aspx