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Famine in the Horn of Africa: why the world is slow to respond

WASHINGTON — Despite an estimated 12 million lives hanging in the balance, international food aid has been slow to arrive to strife-stricken Somalia and neighboring countries caught in the grip of what is now being called East Africa’s worst drought

WASHINGTON — Despite an estimated 12 million lives hanging in the balance, international food aid has been slow to arrive to strife-stricken Somalia and neighboring countries caught in the grip of what is now being called East Africa’s worst drought in 60 years.

Causing the holdup: security concerns and an international community caught off guard by the severity of the drought.

On Tuesday the United NationsWorld Food Program put off for at least a day the start of an airlift of emergency provisions into various sites in the bone-dry Horn of Africa. In addition, an international donors’ conference set for Wednesday in Nairobi was abruptly canceled, according to Oxfam officials, the two setbacks underscoring the difficulties Somalia relief plans have encountered.

The UN declared last week that famine conditions exist in two regions of southern Somalia, putting more than 3 million Somalis there at risk of starvation. The UN also declared an emergency humanitarian crisis throughout the Horn of Africa, as thousands of Somalis leave their homes every day in search of food either in the capital, Mogadishu, or across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia.

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Already Somali refugees who have poured across the border into the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya have made it the largest such site in the world – with a population of 360,000.

UN officials had pinned their hopes on the donors’ conference to raise global interest in East Africa’s food crisis. The UN said Monday that at least $1.6 billion in food assistance would be needed over the next year. Nearly one-fourth of that amount will be needed almost immediately to avoid mass starvation in the coming weeks, UN food and agriculture officials say.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday why the donors’ conference was called off. Yet experts say that everything from donor fatigue to the particular challenges of getting assistance to the region’s displaced and hungry – not to mention concerns about aid falling into the hands of Islamist extremists in southern Somalia – is playing a part in the slow global response.

“In this case, the biggest problem is that the need is so enormous – and growing at such a fast rate,” says Semhar Araia, Horn of Africa regional policy adviser for Oxfam, the international relief and development organization. “It’s also a problem of access,” she adds, “it’s just very difficult to reach certain parts of the Horn, particularly in Somalia.”

While different agencies and organizations cite different numbers, Oxfam estimates that more than 3,500 refugees arrive every day in Ethiopia and Kenya, with 9,000 arriving every week at the Dadaab camp alone.

Still, the current crisis is not simply the result of a particularly bad drought, Ms. Araia says, but also has at its roots a number of man-made causes.

“Droughts have become cyclical in the Horn, and this season has been the driest in years. But other factors include long-running conflict, a rise in food prices, and lack of long-term development and planning for future crises,” she adds. “It’s a combination of natural and man-made causes.”

She notes, for example, that Somalia has been wracked by conflict and instability for more than two decades.

One challenge for relief agencies is that much of Somalia is under the control of Al-Shabab, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist extremist organization. Not only does Al-Shabab deny that people are starving in the regions it controls, but until very recently it banned all relief agencies, including the World Food Program, claiming they are Western political influences.

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The difficulty of getting food aid into Al-Shabab-controlled areas in southern Somalia is one reason more than 100,000 refugees have fled the south. As many as 1,000 internally displaced arrive in the capital of Mogadishu every day – even though it is torn by conflict and bereft of services.

The weak Somali government hardly controls Mogadishu, let alone other areas of the country, a major reason international relief agencies and nongovernmental organizations are extremely cautious about operations in Somalia.

One statistic underscores the challenge of delivering international aid in a country where the central government barely exists and the organization controlling much of the famine-plagued areas is violently hostile to outside assistance: Since 2008, 14 World Food Program aid workers have been killed in Somalia.

Oxfam’s Araia emphasizes that her organization is apolitical and does not comment on a country’s internal conflicts. However she does note that Oxfam does not itself operate in Somalia, instead working through local partner organizations.

The United States has drastically reduced assistance to Somalia in recent years, as the lack of a functioning central government and the spreading influence of Al-Shabab have made foreign aid increasingly problematic.

“We were once Somalia’s largest donor but have reduced that funding by 88 percent in two years, dropping from $237 million in 2008 to only $28 million in 2010,” notes Rep. Mike Honda (D) of California, co-chair of the congressional Progressive Caucus’s peace and security task force.

Oxfam’s Araia say the US has actually been one of the top food assistance donors for the region, having donated $400 million before coming up with an additional $28 million just last week in response to the current crisis. She also says the US was one of the earliest donors, responding with drought intervention aid as early as last fall after an early-warning system pointed to worsening drought conditions.

Still, despite the World Bank’s announcement of $500 million in food aid Monday, and other donations from Canada and Australia, Araia estimates that assistance for the coming year is still about $1 billion short – making the cancellation of the donors’ conference all the more worrisome, she adds.

With climate change likely to leave the Horn of Africa with increasingly frequent “cyclical droughts,” a growing number of interested parties say planning beyond emergency assistance will become essential.

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Noting that “a food aid fix is no long-term solution,” Representative Honda says “the right thing to do going forward is to invest in local Somali solutions and to ensure Somali society is sustainable and strong.”