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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

EDITORIAL

Ending famine in East Africa

Acorollary of Murphy's law states, "Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse." Unfortunately, that statement aptly sums up the situation in East Africa — and in particular southern Somalia — which is caught in the clutches of a deadly famine.

East Africa's most severe drought in 60 years has devastated crops and livestock, triggering food crises across the region. On July 20, the United Nations officially declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle.

On Aug. 3, the world body declared a famine in three other regions of southern Somalia, and it projected that the famine would extend to all eight regions of southern Somalia within four to six weeks because funding shortages and security issues are hampering the humanitarian response. The U.N. says that 3.2 million Somalis require food aid.

Already alarmingly high, the humanitarian toll will escalate unless action is urgently taken. The U.S. government estimates that in Somalia more than 29,000 children under the age of five have died in the past three months due to famine.

While southern Somalia has been hit the hardest, food crises are also impacting other countries in East Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia, parts of Uganda, Djibouti, Sudan and South Sudan.

The U.N. World Food Program estimated in late July that about 12 million people across the region would require food aid, including 2.8 million in Somalia alone. It is thought that the crisis will worsen through August and September, and that aid will be required at least through December.

A Somali refugee crisis is also multiplying the burden on neighboring countries facing their own food crises. As of early August, more than 860,000 Somalis had fled to surrounding countries, with many going to Kenya and Ethiopia.

While the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) camps at Dadaab are supposed to host a maximum 90,000 refugees, they are presently sheltering 440,000 Somalis, and another 1,500 refugees — mostly women and children — are reportedly arriving daily.

The overcrowded conditions have spawned a host of serious problems, including the spread of infectious diseases such as measles and cholera, malnutrition, water shortages, and sexual violence against women and girls.

The camps' daily mortality rate is 7.4 out of 10,000 — far higher than the U.N.'s emergency rate of 1 out of 10,000.

Such problems are also commonplace at the three overcrowded Somali refugee camps in Ethiopia.

On Aug. 16, UNHCR reported that the child mortality rate at the Kobe refugee camp in Ethiopia had reached "alarming" levels, with an average of 10 children under the age of five dying daily. On Aug. 17, Andrew Mitchell, Britain's secretary of state for international development who was visiting Mogadishu, starkly warned that up to 400,000 children in southern Somalia are at risk of starving to death if urgent action is not taken.

Volatile security conditions in southern Somalia are exacerbating the food crisis and its effects. Most of southern Somalia is under the control of al-Shabaab Islamic militants, who are fighting to overthrow the Somali government.

The fundamentalist militants, who have been compared to the Taliban and are said to have links with al-Qaida, have been hindering humanitarian aid efforts by reportedly harassing, kidnapping and even killing aid workers, and banning certain foreign aid agencies.

The violence and threat of it has led to the suspension of some aid operations and forced other humanitarian aid agencies, including the U.N. World Food Program, to leave southern Somalia. The WFP is delivering food aid to Mogadishu, but fraud is reportedly a significant problem in this nearly lawless country and a significant amount of food aid is being sold for profit rather than given to refugees.

The U.N. estimates that close to $2.5 billion is need to resolve the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. Led by the United States at nearly $530 million, the United Kingdom at roughly $167.5 million, and Japan at some $88.5 million, many members of the international community have been making generous donations, and private donors have given nearly $143.4 million, yet funding for emergency aid remains short of what's needed by more than $1 billion.

While economic times are tough the world over, nations, nongovernmental organizations and private citizens are all strongly encouraged to do what they can to help East Africa overcome this crisis.

Looking beyond the current crisis, experts are searching for long-term solutions that will ensure that famine won't revisit the Horn of Africa.

Virtually all agree that while the drought served as the trigger for the food crisis, the famine is man-made — the result of poor governance, outright political breakdown and conflict. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen famously noted, famines do not occur in functioning democracies.

While the first priority is emergency aid, once the immediate crisis is over Japan and other members of the international community should actively pursue policies aimed at bringing peace and political stability to Somalia, and encouraging political reforms in countries that are beset by corruption and poor leadership. Doing so will lay the foundation for the implementation of policies to build physical infrastructure, boost food production and reduce poverty.

Only through such measures can future food crises be avoided.



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