Somalia will always need food aid, or will it?

According to a UN official that was interviewed by a New York Times reporter, Somalia might lose up to 750,000 of its citizens before the next rains. This death toll is unacceptable and, as it’s wont to do, the UN is at the forefront of the efforts to mitigate this disaster; Tristan McConnel, quoting UN figures, wrote in the Global Post that $2.5 billion is needed to provide the food aid that is required. Everyone, and their dog, has jumped unto the ‘Save Somalia’ bandwagon and this time, unlike before, Africans are getting involved.

Prominent African artists Youssou N’dour, Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela and K’naan have written an open letter to African and world leaders to invest in long-term agricultural projects to improve food security and avert famine. In Rwanda, following the Governments donation of $100,000 to the aid effort, young people formed the Rwanda Youth Campaign for Somalia (RYCS) early this month.  The RYCS aims to raise $1million in two months through benefit concerts and the like.

Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College, has warned that “unless the international response changes, the 2011 Somali famine will be to the Obama administration what the 1994 Genocide was to the Clinton administration…a terrible stain”.

Guess what the Somali famine and the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi also share, other than a feeble US response?  The fact that these two events happened in ‘slow motion’. Unlike the Japanese tsunami or the Pakistani earthquake, Rwanda and Somalia are tragedies that occurred step by step, systematically becoming worse and worse, until finally the floodgates opened and people started dying like flies. The genocide here didn’t just happen after the infamous crash, despite what some people would like to think. Machetes were first imported from Egypt, arm caches were built, people were given militia training, target lists were compiled and radios spewed hatred.

In similar vein, Somalis didn’t just wake up to biting hunger. Civil war and the lack of a functioning central government has been part and parcel on life since the fall of Siad Barre. This has been followed by a total lack in investment in agriculture and civil infrastructure. Piracy and its causes (which are never discussed), the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the American War on Terror, the lack of support to the AU peacekeeping troops and the belief that Somalia is an ‘intractable situation’ are the real causes of this famine;  the drought was merely the last ‘nail in the coffin’.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, President Kagame said something that I hope world leaders heard loud and clear. “We need to take a good look at the toll that traditional diplomatic mediation can have on the lives involved in conflict areas. Too often, while resolutions are being debated and refined, people are dying. And sometimes when those resolutions are eventually adopted, enforcement is slow, or they only halt the conflict for a short time but with no sustainable solutions”. While in this instance he was talking about conflict mediation, international disaster response suffers from the very same problem. While things get worse and worse, and as people start dying, instead of quick and decisive action all we get is more and more alarmist talk. And when some action is finally taken, instead of dealing with the causes of the problem, all it does is simply deal with the symptoms and not the disease itself. While making sure that food aid gets to the hungry mouths in Somalia of paramount importance, when the rains finally come and people start planting again, the issues that caused this humanitarian disaster in the first place wouldn’t have dissipated. And unless these issues are solved, Somalia will always be one dry spell away from disaster.



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