'Top 10 culprits' for Horn of Africa hunger


A famine is, of course, a declaration of failure.

So who is to blame?

Here, in the aid and development hub of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, most of those involved in the relief efforts across the Horn of Africa are too busy to get distracted by finger-pointing.

But there is plenty of muttering on the sidelines.

And so here is my top 10 compilation of alleged culprits for your consideration - drawn from conversations with experts, diplomats, Somali officials, foreign aid workers and some of the hungry themselves.

I will leave the blindingly obvious - the drought itself - out of it. But please weigh in with your own lists or arguments.

1. The US - only interested in Somalia in relation to the "war on terror", piracy and oil - according to many.

Washington is extremely squeamish about allowing even a cent of aid money to get into the hands of al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group which controls large parts of Somalia and is linked to al-Qaeda.

It results in a kind of ambivalent attitude to aid in Somalia that has hamstrung plenty of crucial humanitarian programmes.

Malnourished child from southern Somalia is cared for at a camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 23 July 2011 Drought but also human failures are responsible for this malnourished child's plight

"The Americans want to be half pregnant," was how one top European official put it to me, in disgust.

2. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) - the one organisation with the real muscle to end the famine, but because it is heavily dependent on US funding, and tied up in beltway politics, WFP has struggled to secure the necessary guarantees to access al-Shabab territories.

To be fair, it is a lot more complicated than that - as I've seen first hand. WFP has had many workers killed in Somalia - giving it every reason to be cautious.

And its size makes it hard to work under the radar, like some other UN agencies do. But WFP's leadership, some here grumble, tends towards a style of megaphone diplomacy that does not always win friends on the ground.

3. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) - this Western-backed administration is so weak, marginalised and lacking in territory that the most important role it can play right now is to keep out of the way of those fighting the famine.

But the TFG is also a broader symbol of the outside world's obsession with a top-down approach to state building in Somalia. Many believe that has prolonged the conflict - and fuelled the famine.

"Talk to local communities - don't buy yourself a government just so you've got a prime minister to talk to," is how one weathered Somali-watcher put it.

4. Al-Shabab - they have killed aid workers and blocked outside help from getting in. What more is there to say?

Well, remember that al-Shabab is an umbrella, not a cohesive organisation.

As some humanitarian organisations have understood for longer than others, it pays to ignore the vitriolic spokesmen and concentrate on winning round individual commanders and communities.

Some here ponder whether there may be an opportunity lurking behind the famine - as communities outraged by al-Shabab's behaviour finally find the strength to confront them. There are signs that's happening - but on a limited scale.

5. The F-word - famine, and our obsession with it. By which I mean the collective habit of only finding the necessary money and sense of urgency when it is too late.

These days Somalia's population is, fortunately, one of the most heavily monitored in the world. It is not just crude malnutrition rates that are factored in, but other far more sophisticated indices like household debt.

As a result, the good news is that the world has responded faster than it might have done. And yet - as I saw yesterday on a brief stopover in the arid north of Kenya - if the world put as much effort into long-term programmes to build resilience in communities, as it is now doing to feed the hungry, this famine would never have happened.

6. The media: which brings us neatly on to journalists. We are, as one leading humanitarian official told me - with a mixture of flattery and frustration - absolutely crucial in all this.

The UN can produce endless, detailed documents, but the politicians who make the big decisions only react when they see it on the television or the front page. It has been a busy year for news elsewhere, but should we be blamed for waiting too long?

7. Kenya - as I mentioned above, I have just spent a day rushing round development projects in northern Kenya. Two simple facts emerged - Kenya's government has woefully, scandalously underinvested in livestock support, education, and basic infrastructure in its most vulnerable communities.

And when communities are properly helped, they can prepare for, and cope with, the toughest droughts. Maybe this is not directly linked to the chaos in Somalia - but it shows what can be done, and highlights what is not.

8. Everyone else: "Let us not stand back," was how South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it. And yet most of Africa is doing just that (how often has the famine made the front pages in newspapers on this continent?), and so is the Middle East, China, and plenty of other countries.

Is this a response to the flaws and failures of the Sisyphean humanitarian efforts in Somalia over the past two decades? Or plain tight-fistedness?

9. Climate change - if you accept the science, then you have to accept that these droughts are going to be coming thick and fast in the coming decades. And we all share a responsibility for that.

Then again, I understand that Lower Shabelle - now labelled a famine zone - had a bumper harvest last year. Mitigation is possible. A call to action then, not a reason to give up on the Horn of Africa.

10. Population growth - this is crucial. In areas of northern Kenya the population has reportedly doubled in the past decade.

"Twice as many people, but the same number of livestock. This is unsustainable," a UN agriculture expert told me.

Pastoralists are famously adaptable - they have to be to survive. But the pressures now facing them are overwhelming, and accelerated urbanisation looks inevitable.

The key is to make sure that process happens in sustainable places, and not, for example, in the arid plains where Kenya's unofficial new city, Dadaab - the world's largest refugee camp - is bursting at the seams and lowering the water table.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    How unfair of Mr. Harding to blame the USA. Where is the rest of the world, the Africans themselves... What about the Somalies that control the country and deny the famine? He forgot President Bush guilt !!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    The other important is that one has to look at long term solutions to the crisis. It is great that there is short term humanitarian aid in the region, but what about when everyone is fed - hypothetically speaking of course? Are there any long term investment plans for the region so that the people will be able to sustain themselves? Somalia has simply become a global white elephant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    It is true that the United States is at fault for much which is occuring in Somalia, as much as they are to blame for many other things in the world, however the fact of the matter remains that where the US government fails, the US population doesn't. As to yet, they are the highest donours to organisations such as UNICEF, who are one of the most "hands-on" organisations in Somalia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    It's all Sarah Palin's fault. It could also be a result of poverty and the fact that Somali fat cats buying up property in Nairobi and living off the profits of piracy and the miraa trade won't lift a finger to help their destitute compatriots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    No. 7 takes the cake for me - You only have to look at the stomach-size of my [beloved] country's politicians to know where your donor coin goes. Oh, by the way, even as your donor coin pays their umpteenth mortgage, they don't pay taxes. Forget the photos, videos, statistics etc... one lip-service provider from "there" recently said "Kenya has no record of people dying of hunger". I rest my case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Harsh it seems for the US Citizens- Andrew's list is valid. I personally think the US, and the WFP are both to blame here! If they cannot be honest and learn from their failures nothing will change. There are others factors indeed to consider but consistent Human Failures has occurred here and sadly this is fact. Biggest Culprit : Dependency!

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Typical of the BBC to blame the USA who have donated more food than any other nation. Africa is to blame as they sit back and do nothing to help their neighbours. And mothers with 8+ children? Where is the education and where are the fathers of these children.....they are fighting with weapons stolen from aid agencies. And why do the mothers always look so well fed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Only item #1 ie the US role is the elephant at the door preventing other's attempts to save lives of the Somali children. On July 7, 2011 the US congress held a hearing on Somalia. It was stated during the hearing that Al-shabab extracts $20,000-40000/year fromthe NGOs delivering food. The Self-appointed experts recommended food delivery to be withheld and death continue. Sad!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    In 1941 the population of Somalia was 700,000 of which of only 2-3 children would live till adulthood. Post 1940 because of international aid, this rose to nearly 8 out of the family.

    The population in Somalia is expected to rise to 26 million by 2050 in a desertifed pastoral country with no supporting infrastructure, no resourses and a 7th C culture all in a word Un-sustainable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I suspect hormones would affect child development. Hopefully fertility is currently eroded by starvation, buying time. There exist pellets fired under the skin of the upper arm, but cost from memory $50 per shot, every 3 years.
    Women in camps separated from their men, offers us an opportunity. In the 60's oral/manual sex was widespread in the UK. I would certainly give for good contraception.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    " There are cultural reasons, which need to be sensitively explored."

    We haven't got time = people are dying. Food aid laced with contraceptives is the only progressive way forward. Doners may double if this was the current policy. Do we have any other choice?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    We all want the best result. First, start by lacing all food aid with contraceptives, then you might see a bigger response from tired doners. If there is going to be a meaningful outcome: let's address the obvious issues, population size is the most pressing. It's unsustainable so let's educate with forced contraception - what have we got to lose!

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    The destruction of the Islamist conclave in Mogadishu should make it safer to send aid in, and surely we should applaud the Somali government for this action.
    The article I quoted earlier on piracy said aid by sea into Mogadishu stopped in 2008. I certainly would not want to fly into that city. As more armed Islamists are mopped up, things should improve.Insecurity costs money and causes delays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    UN has appealed for further $1.4B aid for drought-stricken Horn of Africa. UN humanitarian aid agency said if aid does not increase, famine will spread throughout southern Somalia within 1 or 2 months. But the aid is not going to Somalia NOW; it's gong to Kenya & Ethiopia. Somalians trek to Ethiopia or Kenya. Al-Shabab has banned UN aid, but there's a CIA base in Mogadishu. What's it doing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Zutt, WB Director, E. Africa, says the problem is access.
    Fragility in Somalia - where drought is at its worst - fragility makes it difficult to respond to situation because humanitarian agencies & development partners have limited access. Instead, money for Somalia will be used to help communities at the heart of the famine.
    Somalia is at the heart of the famine!

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    WB unveiled details of plan to help victims of drought in Horn of Africa. Bulk of effort seems focused on Ethiopia & Kenya - not Somalia. WB Country Director for East Africa Johannes Zutt says over $600M is being made available to those affected, but only $9M going directly toward disaster relief in Somalia, WORST HIT COUNTRY in East Africa. How come?

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Sadly we leave in a world where the situation unfolding in Africa makes us indifferent, the aid agencies do a great job where they can, but surely the blame has to be with the rulers and politicians of those countries for just burying their head in sand and expecting the west to sort it out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    My plan:
    1) Encourage women in oral/manual sex: formidable techniques appear on Sky TV. Show DVDs on cheap players or lap-tops, to groups.
    2) Get an ex-SAS man to build a course for women to kick their men in the genitals if they still want vaginal sex.
    3) Give out food after "Feed or Breed" ceremony involving local religion: swear to have no more children..

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Endemic corruption in Kenya and Somalia should clearly make a top 10 list!

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    It is not a simple case of people having fewer children. There are cultural reasons, which need to be sensitively explored. Also, many people aren't educated and know nothing about birth control. They have no access to contraceptives and women often have no power in the family to refuse their husband. It's a long term problem but the children of today shouldn't suffer because of it!!


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