Starving Somalis Latest Victims of Broken Government

BY Ray Suarez  August 24, 2011 at 11:33 AM EDT


A mother and child from Somalia at a refugee camp in Kenya. Photo by Kate Holt, CARE.

The food crisis in Somalia gets worse by the day. Desperately hungry people are pouring out of their home provinces, crossing borders into Ethiopia and Kenya, or becoming internally displaced.

It is a measure of their desperation that people fleeing deepening hunger actually see Mogadishu as a more attractive option. The United Nations and neighboring countries are struggling to accommodate the thousands pouring in and crowding the new refugee camps. In their own country, Somalis are victimized — once again — by the Islamist organization al-Shabab.

Other countries in the Horn of Africa have had missing or sporadic rains. Other countries in the region have chronic food problems and large portions of their population living on the land. The difference in Somalia? No government worthy of the name.

The country that still appears on the map as “Somalia” hasn’t existed as more than a convenient international fiction in decades. The piece of Somalia that was the old British colony of Somaliland has hived itself off and has been running itself for years. In the remaining portion of the country, the old Italian colony, a big chunk has become independent and self-governing and calls itself Puntland.

The places in Somalia rated as being in famine are not in these two separate and self-governing regions. The hungriest places in Somalia are not only the places where rains have failed, but especially the places where government has long been a failure.

Non-governmental organization leaders have called Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world to do their work. al-Shabab will only help international aid donors when they can get a piece of the action, skimming or seizing supplies to feed their own fighters as much as their starving countrymen.

The world was once wracked by periodic famines. Societies, international organizations, ubiquitous media and the globalized food trade have made it hard — or at least harder — for the world to stand by and watch large numbers of people die. Yet here we are, watching video of gaunt people carrying cadaverous babies into camps across the region. The United Nations says 29,000 children under five have already died.

People wandering in search of food and water for their children don’t go to work in industries. People who walk away from their home towns and all their livestock to move into a camp don’t put next year’s crops into the ground. Somalis flee areas controlled by al-Shabab into neighboring countries in order to save their lives.

Children hanging on to life by a thread not only miss school, they lose mental acuity and the ability to work hard with every missing meal.

This is all just a long version reminder of how much is lost when the original cause, drought, combines with bad government and hostile militias to ratchet up the suffering. When, or if, displaced people come back to Somalia they won’t be able to simply pick up where they left off, they won’t continue their lives at square one. Soil will be degraded, livestock will be dead, and the people themselves may be less able to aid in their own development.

But the world is hardly ready to invade Somalia to make sure tens of thousands more don’t die from preventable causes. With Europe in crisis and the United States feeling particularly insecure, two big sources of aid aren’t as reliable as they have been.

The video of weakened, spindly children, eyes wide and staring, may strike many people sitting in their living rooms as a sign that the world is unhappy and hopeless. It’s hard to know how many would be called to action instead, ready to struggle against the big forces that keep a place like Somalia stuck in place. Think about it: the last time you saw coverage of the Somali famine, how many times have you jumped up from your seat to start addressing their problems?

It’s more likely you’ve watched with horror and fascination until the next story started. Something more pleasant maybe.

I’m not mentioning all this to cast blame. It’s only a reminder that famine is not likely to happen in countries with democratically elected governments and operating national institutions: the ability to get emergency supplies from one region to another, the intelligence-gathering capability to know where problems exist and respond promptly, and the ability to create national priorities and tap into national assets to solve them.

Even the simple ability to ask for help flows in part from functional institutions. In Somalia there are people, but there is no operating nation.

Now that they are turning to Ethiopia and Kenya for aid and sanctuary, it provides an easy-to-grasp illustration of what’s bad about failed states. They don’t keep their failures close to home. They can’t contain their dysfunction inside their borders. As the people of Congo, Sierra Leone, and South Africa can tell you, it only makes things harder when Rwanda, Liberia, and Zimbabwe are next door.

For now, the hunger in Somalia only makes the day when the place can function and provide a decent existence for its people that much further off. A weakened, sickened, vulnerable people can’t build a country.

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