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 95.

    That makes no sense. Why waste oil going to Africa to invite someone back here? People should not move about so wantonly, in the first place. Further it creates no new resources it actually wastes them. It also presupposes it is a good thing simplistically to 'save' any random human life. It would have no effect whatever on the problem, too many humans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Why famine still happening in Africa. If there are everything in Africa to avoid famine. Look to African leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Famines don't happen in a democracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    The NSPCC is probably the most expensive and least effective children's charity in the UK.

    Dismantle it & sell it's assets. Then give the money to aid charities.

    The Childline (the only important function in the NSPCC) can be run from a single office - but not in London.

    Then let police & social workers (i.e. professionals) handle the horrific cases used by the NSPCC as emotional blackmail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Maybe the UN should:
    * send a huge military task force into Somalia
    * set-up a new transitional government (current one doesn't work)
    * capture and imprison the Somalia pirates
    * set-up a charity Using confiscated funds
    * ensure charity is based in Somalia with no expensive head offices
    * implement measures to control rate of new births

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    These problems will continue unless we empower women.
    I regularly meet 12 and thirteen year olds with babies who are 'married' to men at least four times their age. By the time they are in their mid-twenties they will have, on average, five children.
    Birth rates in developed countries are evidence that, given a choice, most women have no more than two children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    People here are not dealing with causes, only effects: economics, politics etc. If we want a good society with people happy and healthy the real issue is spiritual (Vs religious). Proof?: 10 years teaching biblical team work and project management in Africa and the mind-boggling results (self funded schools, medical centres, businesses, tribal reconciliation). Inner transformation is the answer!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    The simple fact is there are far too many humans on this planet.
    Currently our species is an uncontrolled cancer consuming resources at an ever increasing rate.
    Until we can control, and then reduce, our population famines will always occur.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    No sex, no sick babies by the dozens, no starvation, no war, no jobs, no clean water, no housing, no corrupt leaders or govt officials means no food aid.

    Western aids are always a money maker.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Regardless of whether people in the UK share your questionable morality, you are entitled to your opinion. What worries me about your comments is that you have responded to an article about famine in Somalia by generalising about the entire continent of Africa... some 54 Sovereign states... in terms that are at best bigoted and at worst downright racist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I know Somalis here, most are ex-British merchant navy, I sailed with plenty. Alas, due to a destroyed by Free market politics Merchant fleet that cash resource is gone, maybe their sons are now pirates?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Somalia' s Famine problem is a lesson to all who fight only for self interest at the expence of Nation building. Self interest with out commen goal is just like trying to clap with one hand.The Somales speak the same Language with common Religion but a victim of man made Clan division. It is my hope the people will say enough is enough & look forward for the GOOD UNITED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    82.Andrew Morton
    This is sad that you seem to think we are enemies, you call me a savage and again lose the argument. I prefer to call myself a realist. You want to save Africa at the expensive of British children. I would see Africians starve before I would see British children hurt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    76. Britainsnotpleased
    70.Andrew Morton
    ...respect your views and do not make judgements about your moral well being. You lose the argument when you have to resort to personal insults, you may not share my morals but in reality more do in this country than share yours.

    So you think, savage

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    What a ridiculous question. It's governments, or the absence of, that causes these human disasters. If those ruling some of the poorer countries in the world could actually focus on the people and not their own power battles, then in most cases there would be no famine. The people also have a role in allowing these bullies to persist. The aid agencies are the ones usually left holding the baby!

  • Comment number 80.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.


    "Africa is a waste..... of resources"

    I really have heard it all now.


  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    We can't neglect famine either!
    What did you neglect?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    There's a lot of Darwinians on here tonight. I do hope they evolve into some kind of human form soon.

  • Comment number 76.

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


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