Five Things to Know About the Food Crisis in the Horn of Africa

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By EJ Hogendoorn and Ben Dalton – Special to CNN

Famine has returned to the Horn of Africa, and Somalia is the worst hit. For the first time since the early 90s, the United Nations has declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia, meaning that more than 30 percent of the population is malnourished. All told, 3.7 million Somalis are in need of immediate food aid, part of some 11.5 million in need across the Horn of Africa. Each month, huge streams of refugees cross the border into Ethiopia and Kenya–nearly 170,000 since January–spreading the humanitarian crisis with them. Tens of thousands have already died.

At fault are three big factors. First, rainfall has been sparse for the past two years, causing widespread crop failures and depletion of food reserves. Second, food prices worldwide have skyrocketed, so the shortfall in produce among the poor cannot be made up in trade and imports. Finally, chronic insecurity in southern Somalia has exacerbated the situation. Much of southern Somalia is controlled by Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group at war with the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government. Al-Shabaab has also prevented many international agencies from distributing food aid to affected areas.

It is only a matter of time before famine is declared in much of south Somalia. Somalia is at the center of the emergency, but much of the Horn of Africa is at risk. If humanitarian relief does not reach people in southern Somalia immediately, further refugee flows could undermine food security in neighboring countries.

The international community has to act –and act fast – to stop the growing crisis. As the U.S. and other governments consider their options, here are five things to keep in mind.

1. Don’t let Al-Shabaab deny your humanitarian impulse. The U.S. government has voiced concern that assistance to Somalia could end up in the hands of Al-Shabaab, a designated terrorist organization. As a result, in 2010, U.S. aid to Somalia dropped to just one tenth of what it was two years before. It is true that armed groups were “taxing” humanitarian aid, but this is unavoidable in complex emergencies. Whatever marginal benefit Al-Shabaab derives from foreign aid, it is far outweighed by the goodwill and increased stability that aid generates. This is also an important way to show Somalis and the Muslim world at large that the West cares about more than waging a “War on Terror”.

2. Instead, think of this as an opportunity. Al-Shabaab is not a monolithic organization. It includes both hardliners and pragmatists. In July, the organization made two statements, one appealing for a return of international humanitarian agencies and the other claiming that any news of famine was “sheer propaganda.” Boosting international aid may help to woo those members willing to renounce terrorism away from the increasingly unpopular hardliners.

3. That said, international efforts must work together. Attempts to stabilize Somalia must be coordinated and carefully managed. Reporting from Somalia suggests that much internal displacement is directly attributable to military campaigns by the internationally funded Transitional Federal Government. As much as possible, the military push against Al-Shabaab should not aggravate an already poor humanitarian situation. Aid should also not empower re-emerging warlords.

4. The best way to prevent famines over the long-term is to foster peace and stability. It’s no surprise that the crisis is much less serious in Somaliland and Puntland, autonomous regions in northern Somalia that have been relatively stable. Immediate, short-term food aid must be followed by longer-term efforts to promote stability and good governance. That means looking beyond the narrow focus of defeating Al-Shabaab. Given a corrupt and ineffective Transitional Federal Government, international donors should not focus exclusively on the central government in Mogadishu, but also support stable, responsive and accountable local authorities. Because of longstanding clan competition and mistrust, a decentralized form of government is much more appropriate in the current Somali environment.

5. Even if governments don’t launch a full-scale relief program, they can still help. For instance, the U.S. should temporarily lift Office of Foreign Asset Control restrictions, which prevent aid groups from operating in areas “controlled” by Al-Shabaab.

The international response to famine is typically presented as a humanitarian mission. While that alone more than justifies international involvement, governments should also consider that food aid in Somalia and the Horn of Africa is strategic – that it can change negative perceptions about the West and reduce insecurity in the whole region. They should get moving.

The views expressed in this piece are solely those of EJ Hogendoorn and Ben Dalton.