Written by Valerie Lopez
Although Somalia is often overshadowed by other news headlines the inhabitants still suffer from grave intersecting forces of political instability, drought, famine, and outbreaks of cholera. An estimated 10 million people are affected by the drought with 3.2 million needing emergency medical and food assistance, and tens of thousands of children’s lives being claimed by starvation.
It does not give justice to distill Somalia’s acute humanitarian crises into brief bullet-points; however the deluge of information and history surrounding such circumstances can be overwhelming. This brief overview will hopefully explain the significant factors contributing to what many consider as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history.
Efforts to transform Somalia into a Western style democracy have been unsuccessful since the collapse of Mohamed Siad’s Barre’s military dictatorship in 1991. Protracted periods of civil unrest rendered the existence of nationhood difficult to achieve.
The Transitional Federal Government (TGF) was created in 2004 as the internationally recognized governing body of Somalia. It is the product of two years of negotiations among representatives from Somalia’s major clans, mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. This political institution is not democratic. The mandate for the transitional government was supposed to end in August 2011 with popular elections, however Somalia’s current president (Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed) refused to step down.
Many consider the TGF to be inept, weak, and corrupt. There is an overall lack of political support for the country’s population and human rights activists have accused the TGF of raping women and children, killing civilians, and engaging in looting and theft. Because of the TGF’s inability to govern it cannot protect its own citizens from extremist militant groups or even provide adequate assistance for Somalis enduring one of the worst famines in decades.
The Al-Shabaab is an extremist militant Islamic faction that is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and has been waging an ongoing insurgency against the TGF. It promotes a very conservative branch of Islam and rejects Western cultural imports. Their anti-Western attitudes have made it especially difficult for foreign aid workers, oftentimes affiliated with Western nations, to carry out humanitarian work.
Al-Shabaab has imposed encompassing restrictions including a ban on the UN World Food Program in 2009, worsening the effects of the famine as it hit the country in 2011. The militant group controls most of the southern region of Somalia, though have recently withdrawn their presence in the capital, Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab is blocking the emigration of starving communities out of the country, forcing them to remain in camps with horrible living conditions and where food supplies are extremely scarce.
Lack of Infrastructure for Foreign Aid
Because of the anarchic violence embroiling Somalia, it is common for aid workers to work remotely from Somalia. It is especially difficult for humanitarian workers to accomplish their missions due to a hostile, anti foreign Islamic militia and the lack of a strong centralized government. As the New York Times reports, “large aid organizations tend not to base their own staff members there and instead appoint local groups to monitor aid deliveries, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.”
The local groups responsible for the distribution of food and supplies are accused of selling the donations in the market in order to gain profit. As a result assistance does not reach those who are fighting to survive. The lack of a stable political structure greatly discourages safe, efficient and equitable distribution of aid.
Somalia is among the countries comprising the Horn of Africa, which are experiencing the worst famine in sixty years. Decreased rainfall from two consecutive rainy seasons has negatively impacted water supplies, crops harvests and livestock.
The man-made dimensions of Somalia’s calamities have crippled the country’s ability to care for its suffering population. Adjacent countries, such as Ethiopia and Kenya cannot meet the overwhelming demands of incoming refugees arriving en masse.
The aforementioned factors are inextricably connected. Flooding the region with aid will not necessarily allay starvation. There needs to be a multi-pronged approach when addressing the country’s political and economic stability in addition to providing adequate humanitarian aid is necessary in order to save the lives that are in mortal peril.