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Famine in Africa

Was the world late to Somalia’s famine?

Scott Tong Jan 4, 2012

Tess Vigeland: This holiday season, you may have noticed an uptick in appeals for help with the famine in Somalia. More than 30,000 people have died. The U.N. says the worst may have passed, yet a quarter of a million Somalis still live on the edge of starvation.

Marketplace’s Scott Tong traveled to the region last fall, and reports now on whether this was a preventable tragedy.

Scott Tong: This fall, I held a baby Somali boy at a refugee hospital in Kenya. He was so thin, his legs were barely thicker than my microphone.

Tong: How many pounds is he?

Nurse: He’s very, very small — 2.5 kilos, so less than six pounds, at two months.

Inside Somalia, it’s worse. University of Minnesota professor Abdi Samatar visited camps in Mogadishu , where Somalis fight over food rations.

Abdi Samatar: What was most troubling was the way people lose dignity. You are this hungry hyena or hungry cheetah or what have you. And have to behave in certain ways to get access to that food. That’s so dehumanizing.

Somalia’s famine is complex –- drought, lawlessness, war. It looks hopeless.

And yet many experts believe this was preventable, if the world had responded sooner with aid and money. The warnings were there.

Grainne Moloney: January of 2011 was already a massive crisis, particularly in southern Somalia.

Grainne Moloney works for the U.N. Somalia food security unit. Last winter, long before famine was declared, rains had failed. Food was scarce.

Moloney: We then had 2.4 million people in crisis. The prices had doubled. And the outlook was not good.

Each day, upwards of a thousand Somalis were fleeing for refugee camps. Yet somehow, hardly anyone showed at relief aid meetings across Africa and the world. The Arab Spring stole the headlines. The White House said nothing.

And aid from the U.S. –- the most generous country -– was nose-diving. From 2008 to 2010, U.S. aid to Somalia fell 88 percent.

Jeremy Konyndyk works for Mercy Corps, which receives U.S. aid grants.

Jeremy Konyndyk: We and a lot of other agencies had grants running out, there were not getting renewed. Getting a definitive answer on what the cause for that was proved very difficult.

As famine approached, aid was “frozen,” according to government emails, and a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks. Washington feared aid was being stolen, or taxed, by a Muslim extremist group new on the U.S. terror list — al-Shabaab.

Cameron Hudson was on White House national security staff.

Cameron Hudson: There were increasing indications the Shabaab was actively reaching out both to the al-Qaeda in East Africa network, which we knew to be responsible for the U.S. embassy bombings, and then also at the same time reaching back to al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

At least one intelligence report questions those links. But Hudson says the dominant view then was of a lethal Shabaab -– kept in business by bribing and extorting aid groups.

Hudson: You have to go after things like sources of revenue from which they derive power. So that was a very active effort.

With teeth. U.S. officials can be prosecuted if aid gets to terrorists. But relief workers say in the fog of disaster, aid money leaks out in all directions. So the U.S. aid agency sought legal exemptions. But at White House meetings, counter-terrorism officials pushed back.

Hudson: And that constricted the ability for aid agencies to deliver the kid of assistance they were wishing to deliver.

Also slowing the response: top officials were said to be slow to stick out their necks for Somalia. Bronwyn Bruton is with the Atlantic Council think tank.

Bronwyn Bruton: Time after time, any intervention in Somalia has gone belly up. So there are very few policymakers –- in fact none that I can think of — who want to be responsible for the policy. It’s like catching the hot potato.

Aid officials deny any dithering.

Nancy Lindborg: I welcome this opportunity to correct what I think is a profound misconception.

Nancy Lindborg is with the U.S. Agency for International Development. If anyone has blood on their hands, she blames al-Shabaab, which threatens and expels aid groups.

Lindborg: Only in southern parts of Somalia, which are controlled by Shabaab and other groups where there was very limited humanitarian access did it go from crisis to famine. That’s the causal relationship.

Lindborg says aid fell off when a key partner –- the World Food Program — pulled out of Somalia. WFP officials said it was dangerous, and Shabaab demanded payments for security. But another Wikileaks cable suggests the program was responding to U.S. terror laws. WFP withdrew to “escape from U.S. legislation and not feel embarrassed.” WFP is not commenting on the cable.

Jeremy Konyndyk at Mercy Corps notes other aid groups stayed on.

Jeremy Konyndyk: If you look at the numbers, you don’t see the kind of decline amongst other donors than the U.S. And that says to me that other donors were finding ways around the access obstacles and the U.S. was not.

By late spring, refugee flows swelled to 1,500 daily. One in five Somali children was eating the equivalent of a plate of rice a day. Again, Grainne Moloney of the U.N. food security unit.

Moloney: A plate of rice a day represents about 800 calories. If you’re in the West and you want to lose some weight over five days you go on this diet, you are starving but you will lose a lot of weight. If you are living like this for eight months, you will starve.

By July, the U.N. declared famine –- in its words “the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world.” Only then did international contributions ramp up. Only then did Washington lift terrorism restrictions on aid.

Robert Paarlberg teaches food security at Wellesley College.

Robert Paarlberg: In Somalia today, our mission from the start really has been political. The humanitarian objective has never really been able to take first place. That’s too bad, because of the magnitude of the famine that’s underway.

The worst of the famine may have passed, but the U.N. says aid is critical through next summer. U.S. officials are pushing in food and money in creative ways. But again, critics argue this was due last winter. For all the warnings, this reminds them of Somalia’s last famine 20 years ago, when 200,000 died. A U.S. report says 70 percent of those lives could have been saved, but “resources, political will and effort were not available when needed.”

In Washington, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Check out the rest of Scott’s stories from East Africa here.

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