Two weeks ago, the United Nations declared an official famine for the first time since 1984—a famine in two regions of Somalia. Yesterday, it declared famine in three more regions, with more than 12 million people at risk of death by starvation and 29,000 under the age of five already dead. In an effort to survive, thousands are refugees are making long journeys by foot, hoping to find nourishment in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps. At the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya alone, more than 1,000 Somalians arrive a day, roughly half of which are starving children; the camp is already four times its capacity, and there is a backlog of 17,000 people waiting to register in the camp. The latest reported challenge is that malnourished young girls and women making the journey and in the camps are being preyed upon, kidnapped and gang-rapped, sometimes for days and in front of their children, by armed militia and bandit—an occurrence that become common enough that many women are having their boys keep watch when they sleep.
In a globalized world, with Green Revolution technologies and international aid and nonprofits, why is this famine occurring? Some point to the fact that the Horn of Africa region is experiencing its worst drought since the 1950s—although sub-Saharan Africa is used to drought and erratic rainfall. Others point to the switch that Somalia made from nomadic herding and subsistence farming to large, sedentary cash crops for export—vulnerable to bad weather and international food prices (highest record in 23 years in February). Meanwhile, al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group currently targeted by U.S. drone strikes, controls much of southern Somalia and has been restricting access. In response, although it puts the U.S. in a tricky position because experts believe that some of the money will be partially siphoned off to al-Shabab, the Obama administration has agreed to loosen regulations on paying “taxes” or tolls to the terrorist group for the sake of getting aid to where it’s most needed. Is this famine man-made or mother nature-made? What can we learn from this famine in an effort to prevent future famines? And, in the aftermath of months of debating our debt at home, how much should the U.S. assist and intervene to save lives abroad?
William G. Moseley, professor of geography, Macalester College; co-author of Hanging by a Thread: Cotton, Globalization and Poverty in Africa and other books; lived in Africa and worked in international development with Save the Children