Somalia's famine: One year on


The BBC's Andrew Harding says the situation is now much improved

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So, do you want the good news first… or the bad news?

One year after the United Nations declared a famine in parts of Somalia, there is plenty to praise and even more to fret about in a country still grappling with conflict, drought, and the muddled politics of international aid.

It is almost exactly 12 months since I last visited Dolo - a shabby but relatively quiet little town near the border with Ethiopia, which was then swamped with civilians fleeing the famine zones.

Today, at first glance, not much seems to have changed. Still lots of men with guns, a bone-dry countryside, hundreds of threadbare makeshift tents, and - just as we drove into a UN camp - the familiar sight of weary new arrivals squatting in the dirt. Some 3,000 people are still coming here each month.

Forty-year-old Halima Hawana told me she had sold her small field to raise the money to make the journey. "The drought is back," she said through a local translator, "and al-Shabab threaten us. The security is no good."

'Still critical'

Despite losing some key towns in recent months to a haphazard series of offensives by Somalia's transitional government troops, foreign forces and local militias, the militant Islamist group al-Shabab still holds big chunks of southern Somalia. It was their reluctance to allow aid into their territory, combined with soaring inflation, which triggered the famine last year.

And yet, despite the on-going security concerns and the partial failure of the latest rains, there is also real progress here.

"The situation is still critical," said the UN's chief humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden. "But things are improving. We do have things under control - we are better positioned. We are very unlikely to have [another] famine."

That is due to a number of factors. There was one decent rainfall in Somalia earlier this year - which led to a good harvest. Food prices - and despite its chaos Somalia is closely tied into global markets - have stabilised and inflation is under control. And finally there is what Mr Bowden called the "phenomenal generosity" of the international community following his declaration of a famine one year ago. Donors "should be very proud of themselves," he said.

A closer inspection of Dolo revealed some of the results of that generosity - large warehouses full of grain, as well as a brand new hospital and other infrastructure.

But what happens now that the famine is over? The "F word," as it is known in aid circles, signifies a shockingly grim event and one of the ultimate examples of a man-made catastrophe. But it is also - and I hope this doesn't come out the wrong way - one hell of a fund-raising tool.

"Statistically, the famine may be over now," said Sikander Khan, the head of Unicef Somalia. "But we are not out of the woods yet. We're concerned that just by declaring the famine is over, people may think everything is fine. It's not fine. One in five children is malnourished. Donors have been very generous but we need to sustain this momentum… to make these children resilient."

Which is why the UN is now clamouring for the rest of the $1.16bn ($740m) it says it needs to avoid another humanitarian disaster in Somalia this year.


But even while they are appealing loudly for more money, senior UN officials quietly acknowledge the flaws in a funding system that seems driven by media headlines and geared towards the short term.

Farmer Adam Alil working his field Adam Alil hopes his family may one day not have to rely on aid

"Emergency responses are always very expensive," said Mr Khan, sketching out his vision of a longer-term development strategy that would be "much cheaper and has far more impact".

And curiously, that vision is already taking partial shape in a field just outside Dolo - where a livid green expanse of corn, onions and other crops form an unexpected contrast with the surrounding scrubland.

Adam Alil is one of a group of farmers tending the fields, and guiding the water being pumped from the nearby river down a network of small irrigation channels.

"Once we harvest then we going to support our family so in future we might not need aid. We can become self-sufficient. I don't want to sleep - I want to work," he said, leaning on a metal crutch having lost one leg to a snake bite.

These fields, and 82,000 like them across Somalia, are being heavily supported - with seeds, and fuel for the irrigation pumps - by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). According to the FAO's Somalia boss, Luca Alinovi, the project is working "quite successfully" even in areas of conflict and regions under al-Shabab control. But the FAO is hamstrung by a lack of longer-term funding.

"We need support for two or three years," to allow farmers to become self-sufficient, said Mr Alinovi, but the funding "is not yet there".

As we headed back to the air strip for the return flight, I saw Halima Hawana and the other new arrivals being processed by officials at the camp. Optimists will argue that the current upsurge in fighting is a sign that al-Shabab is on the verge of defeat, and point to the growing sense of security in the capital, Mogadishu. August is likely to be an important month in the city, as a new parliament takes shape.

But al-Shabab is a symptom of Somalia's problems as much anything else, and the pessimists have a better track record in this turbulent country. The darkest days of last year may be over, but it remains hard to imagine a quick or smooth end to Somalia's troubles.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    WhyMe44 @ 36 says:
    "We call for Assad to be overthrown and give millions to the terrorists who are ripping Syria apart. Yet we don't apply the same conditions to African sovereign states riddled with corruption and ruled by dictators who make Assad look like an angel."

    That's because world action via the UN is driven hardest by the Israeli lobby not compassion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Hmmm, what to say? So many points

    The first thing - yes, humans dont NEED to live in Africa. We choose (collectively) to do so, just as there is a push to not to abandon Christchurch in NZ. Why?

    For too long we have relied on 'charity' rather than the optimal decisons. Why?

    When it comes to individuals, what do you do? Ignore all principals & beliefs to try to keep 1 child alive? I would

  • Comment number 53.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The comments about the birth rate are so upside-down - the birth rate will fall when there is less poverty, more education, lower infant mortality and more hope. That's not a speculation but a proven trend. The poor countries of the world need us to make trade fair, to block tax loopholes so they get their rightful share, and to take care of the environment.

  • Comment number 51.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    46 There are more than 50 countries in Africa and only 5 or so are at war. The rest are held back by economic policies that ensure rich countries get richer and poor countries poorer. More Africans received a free education before SAPs were imposed. Tomato growers in Senegal can't make a living because subsidised Italian tomatoes flood their market. Let Africa compete on a level playing field.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Handing out surplus food from the west destroys the local market economy. Handing out money to corrupt officials is wrong also. Supporting family planning clinics is the most cost effective way to get these countries back on their feet. Empowerment of the women is the key aspect to this, allowing them to choose when to have a child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The Charitable Superstar Problem:

    My theory goes thusly:
    The wealthy are supposed to be charitable, but
    they hide "invest" the vast majority of their money while giving comparatively little to charity.
    This disparity is made vivid when one considers that the larger sum is spent encouraging businesses in poor countries to put starving people into sweatshops, locking them in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Aid Agencies are desperate to prevent disasters but they find it hard to raise funds for 'development' and much easier to raise funds for disasters. There are so many brilliant development projects, like the FAO one mentioned. I would plead for more coverage of the success stories because donor fatigue is fuelled by a sense that nothing ever changes and actually huge amounts is being achieved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


    I understand what you are saying. However, economic development in these countries seem to be unsuccessful because of war lords and corrupt governments.

    Therefore, if women were given help with proper birth control methods there would be more food for them and they would become stronger.

    Equally important for the men to have access to birth control and education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    We need to educate them? It's us who need to educate our children. We need to teach the next generation about the causes of poverty: Structural Adjustment Programmes, global trade rules, IMF policies etc. Then our children can decide if they are happy with the status quo or whether they want to challenge it. I hope one day Africans can enjoy the benefits of a better educated West.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    The very FIRST question that has to be answered by the charities is what are the governments of these areas doing about THEIR problem.

    For every pound donated by the UK public as much as half if not more goes to professional London head office salaries, costs and expenses.

    Look around the world - where are the problems - MOSTLY IN ISLAMIC COUNTRIES - so where is the oil rich Gulf arab aid?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    I keep reading about energy poverty and how X-thousands die each winter. Also how it costs the Government (aka tax payer).

    I have a solution.

    Age Concern wasn't interested in even replying to me. Neither was their co-charity with whom they were suing the Labour Government.

    Neither was Oxfam after I responded to their e-mail shot about fighting energy poverty.

    Neither is the UK Government.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    35 and 30:
    What is the point of having 6 children if only one survives? Sadly, this is precisely why someone might have 6 children. Condoms? Yes, to prevent infections. But they won't reduce the birth rate. Only the removal of barriers to economic development will do this, through the increase in life expectancy. Search for Hans Rosling on youtube: family size decreases with life expectancy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    A personal viewpoint.
    We should offer education and help with cultural reform if that is what is wanted.
    Trying to help these people may give us a warm fuzzy glow but in reality we are feeding up the next army and mainitaining a population in an envorinment that will not sustain them. How many lives do we save now that will be killing their neighbours in 10 years time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The reason why Aid Agencies don't work to prevent disasters is because they are run by career aid personnel .

    It is a nice cosy job: ticking the boxes. Just like being an MP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    There is more than enough spare money floating around in the vaults of the G10 Banks to end world poverty threefold, and provide enough funding for the developing world to grow its way out of poverty. What the US spends annually on the Iraq war is enough to end African poverty in one fell swoop. There is no profit in peace though, so war is what gets funding to ensure commodities reach our stores.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.


    So - what about the next fifty years ? More and more stories for journalists to tell ? The same old, same old ?

    Women having 7 + babies in these famine ridden, war torn countries is not the solution is it ?

    Better to give these helpless people education and birth control.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    World GREED causes famines. That is supported by corrupt politics.

    There is no reason why anyone on this planet should not have food, water and shelter but the above is the reason why.

    Plus of course human beings are just nasty and selfish

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    We call for Assad to be overthrown and give millions to the terrorists who are ripping Syria apart.

    Yet we don't apply the same conditions to African sovereign states riddled with corruption and ruled by dictators who make Assad look like an angel.


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