In Horn of Africa, drought only a trigger

Thursday, August 11, 2011

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Rauli Lepisto

Finn Church Aid

Rauli.Lepisto@kirkonulkomaanapu.fi

More than 11 million people are in urgent need of food aid in the Horn of Africa, and the United Nations has declared two regions of southern Somalia to be suffering from famine - a term that is not used lightly. We’ve been here before: in 1991-3, Somalia experienced severe famine that killed between 240,000 and 280,000 people and displaced up to 2 million, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It’s fair to ask “Why is this happening again?”

Many in the media commentariat are arguing that today’s food shortage has been caused the worst drought the region has suffered in sixty years. So the public assumes, once again, that the Horn of Africa is a victim of cruel misfortune dished out by a harsh and merciless nature. But we shouldn’t satisfy ourselves with such easy answers. The real reasons behind the food crisis are far more complex, and it’s essential to understand them properly if we want to provide long-term help to the people who are suffering.

When the international community focuses on the Horn of Africa, it tends to play up two threats: piracy and radical Islamism. This attitude is reflected as much in foreign policy as in general discourse. Media attention has by and large followed this trend. Pirates are seen to harm western trade interests, while al Shabaab is perceived as the next Taliban, scoutmasters of international terrorism. Even now, in the midst of the food crisis, some of the most arresting headlines are about al Shabaab, not about the people who are suffering agonies in this crisis.

But the dominant analysis of even these two perceived antagonists - the pirates and al Shabaab – show how the crisis in the Horn, and in particular in Somalia, is still misunderstood. The piracy threat, goes the thinking, adds costs to logistics, hiking up the price of western goods. That is true, but what is often left out of this analysis is that the Somali people are also footing the bill. As food prices soar globally, piracy merely adds to the already high cost of food. In Somalia that is not an issue that can be taken lightly as the country is highly dependent on imports. Some Somali traders complain that piracy doubles the cost of importing food.

Perceiving Somalia as a nest for terrorism also leads us to miss the point. It ignores the fact that the country has effectively been plagued by civil war for nearly two decades. The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to be constantly on the move, preventing them from cultivating their land adequately, or from seizing other employment opportunities that could help them survive when food becomes scarce. In the Somali region of Ethiopia, the situation is hardly any better.

The incessant fighting also stops us from addressing the abject poverty that torments the region, which prevents people from adjusting to increases in food prices. Constant conflict and insecurity also preclude people from tackling long-term issues such as the effects of climate change, which is degrading ever-increasing amounts of land through deforestation and soil erosion. Climate change, in turn, can become a source of yet more conflict as depleted resources are contested by greater numbers of people.

In the future, the international aid community must assess the situation constantly and be as self-critical as necessary of its own interventions. Although, as members of international NGO networks, we do much of the essential lifesaving work on the ground, the element of urgency often prevents us from analysing the long-term impact of our work. In the worst cases we do more harm than good.

In Somalia, a sudden influx of aid money has sometimes undermined traditional ways of dealing with crisis, as the incentive to develop or maintain time-honoured methods has disappeared. This has been the case where, for example, free agricultural products have been provided to areas that already have functioning local markets. Markets, which often play an essential role in mitigating the effects of a given food crisis, can hardly compete with anything given free.

Very often, out of necessity, the aid community also finds itself taking on many of the responsibilities of local authorities or even governments. The aid community needs to be scrupulously careful in how big a role it acquires. Adopting infrastructural responsibilities that would normally be carried out by local governments brings with it the risk that people in need will not take the initiative - or even be allowed to participate – when it comes to building the structures and strategies necessary to get out of the crisis.

In Somalia, for instance, the potential of local Islamic charities has not been used to its full extent, as these organisations are - without much analysis – automatically rejected by traditional international donors. Nonetheless, they are often the organisations with the best access to existing resources. It is often the case that the amount of available food is not the problem. The problem is the lack of local expertise and institutions to distribute existing resources more efficiently.

Only by taking into consideration the complexity of the issues, and the importance of local ownership, will we find ways to advance our cause. This cause must combine a clear vision to create sustainable long-term coping mechanisms where local needs are heard and capabilities built. We have long known this. Yet the current food crisis somehow took many of us by surprise. There is no better evidence that the knowledge we in the aid community have acquired through many painful mistakes is still not getting through to all who need to hear it.

Regarding the Horn of Africa, a good deal of knowledge exists. Now we just have to find ways to communicate that, to ourselves, and to the rest of the world. But if we fail to acknowledge the real challenges and the local potential that already exists, we may soon find ourselves appealing to the world to save the starving people of the Horn of Africa, once again.