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Understanding What Created the Horn of Africa Famine

August 8, 2011

The famine in Somalia is like a firework, lighting up a massive, slow-burning food crisis in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa. This famine did not happen over night. Its causes are deeply intertwined — the impact of donated food on small farmers with the expanding desertification of the Horn of Africa and growing arid areas in Kenya and Ethiopia as deforestation and climate change turn arable land into arid land. As land grows more arid, the resulting loss of grazing and water for nomadic herders creates conflicts between clans. Those conflicts deplete people’s wealth and animals — this makes them more vulnerable. As people have to sell their remaining animals, they get low prices for them while food prices climb. The global oil market results in higher fuel costs which drives grain prices up at a time when people have less money. The changing climate pattern is triggering this shift throughout much of Eastern Africa and the Horn.

People are resilient on the whole — particularly people who make a living on the margins, as do many of the nomadic herders and small farmers in Southern Somalia now affected by the drought. Governments in Kenya and Ethiopia have the capacity to measure rainfall, acquire food stores, regulate food prices, provide distribution mechanisms — in short, mitigate some of the successive shocks that people are feeling.

What moved this food crisis to famine in Southern Somalia however is the combination of lack of governance and conflict, in the context of the so-called global war on terror. Somalia has not had a functioning government since 1991 when Siad Barre was driven out of power. Behind the headlines over the last decades, there have been numerous power struggles in which the West has interfered, exacerbating struggles and divisions. The U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion in 2006 to throw out a group of Islamists called the Islamic Courts of Union and supported the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu which now controls 60% of the capital with the help of UN troops. The Ethiopian invasion radicalized sectors of the ICU which formed the Al Shabaab, the group now in control of Southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab has ties to Al Quaeda and their aim is to establish an Islamic state. They are suspicious of the UN and large western aid organizations. Relationships between Al Shabaab and the relief organizations have deteriorated in the last several years resulting in aid being gradually diminished, leaving people with even less support on the ground. Now in the midst of escalating famine, many relief organizations are still reluctant to enter the area and Al-Shabaab is not clear about whether they will allow them access.

As a result, villages in Southern Sudan are emptying out and Mogadishu is filling with families who have walked hundreds of kilometers to find food and aid. Their stories are illuminating the reality we don’t see. According to Concern Ireland, every family that has arrived in Mogadishu has lost at least two children on the way, and the ones who have lost two are considered the lucky ones.

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