Twenty years ago, I sat at a wooden table under a plastic tarp eating cereal in powdered milk made of charcoal-filtered water at a refugee camp near Luuq, Somalia. It was the sparest of conditions.
In the corner of my eye, I saw a young man and woman with an older woman sit down near a thorn fence a few hundred feet away. The young woman held a baby.
Meanwhile, my colleagues and I joked and teased each other as the sun rose.
After we finished breakfast, a Somali-speaking staff interpreter came to the doctor who sat across from me and took him to the young couple. The young mother handed her baby to the doctor.
I was startled when I heard him shouting curse words. As we had eaten breakfast, they had waited politely and the malnourished child had died.
Hearing this, I became sick to my stomach, not to mention overwhelmed with a load of grief.
That was Somalia 20 years ago, in a massive famine in which millions of Somalis were displaced from their desiccated rangelands. Herds on which they depended for survival were dead and dying. Wells they used across the entire territory were dry. Food could not be found. Famine stalked the vast Ogaden rangelands across the breadth of Somalia and into Ethiopia.
Drought and conflict
Periodic drought has resulted in famine about every 10 years. What’s different today, according to the U.N. World Food Programme, is changing weather patterns that make drought more common, giving the people and the land less time to recover.
Drought tips the scale, but conflict has been a persistent contributing factor. Famines in 1973, 1984 and 1992 were preceded by intractable conflict.
This year, the food shortages in Somalia have been exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian access to many areas, accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices.
The 10 million estimated by the United Nations to need food assistance today does not approach the 1992 figure of 23 million, according to the BBC. However, reaching them is more difficult. The BBC reports al-Shabab, a group of Islamist insurgents who control the south, has threatened the lives of U.N. staff and imposed unacceptable operating conditions, including informal taxes and a demand that no female staff work there for the WFP.
These recurring conditions – both natural and human-caused — contribute to a sense of futility and donor fatigue that’s dangerous. Those affected by famine are the most vulnerable in this troubled region — children, women and girls, and the elderly. They have not created the conditions that threaten their lives. They are least equipped to deal with famine.
The warlord problem
E.J. Hogendoorn of the International Crisis Group counsels international donors to see the current crisis as an opportunity to establish a relationship with moderates in al-Shabab and attempt to woo them away from terrorism. He suggests the humanitarian response must empower people and not warlords. And he cautions against aid as a component of military operations.
As I traveled through southern Somalia several years ago, locals told me of their frustration with a U.N. repatriation program for warlords conducted under the guise of establishing order. The locals claimed that the United Nations helped warlords who had fled the country after Said Barre’s regime fell, enabling them to return and putting them in charge of administering regional civil infrastructure. The result was the empowerment of the very group that had fractured and destroyed the country in the first place.
Despite the international frustrations, children, young people and adults are still dying of hunger and related causes today in Somalia, and the world cannot stand by without making an effort to provide the help they need to survive. Somalia is a challenge to our humanity and the conscience of the world. We must not turn away from the innocent.
Called to act
The image of the couple with their baby 20 years ago still haunts me. It motivates me. Where we can, we must prevent children from dying for lack of food. We must be agents of life.
The neglect of Somalia also reminds us that the world is no more secure than its weakest, most vulnerable people, no matter where they are located. For years after the end of the Cold War, Somalia was overlooked by world leaders and its corrupt regime ignored. Then it fell apart, and now it’s a global problem, a place where uneducated, heavily armed young men commit piracy on the high seas and terrorists train recruits to kill and terrorize.
Somalia is not a distant place on the Horn of Africa, nor is the suffering of the Somali people of no consequence to us. As a person of faith who follows Jesus, I am called by his teachings about human worth and my responsibility to my neighbor to be concerned and to act. As a citizen of the world, I know my own desire for peace and a fruitful future is at risk by the unaddressed need for peace and stability in Somalia.
For benevolent reasons, for the well-being of the Somali people and our own, and for global security, the world cannot ignore Somalia. As I have breakfast today, I know that babies are dying, and faithful discipleship and responsible global citizenship compel me to act.
The Givewell Blog discusses giving to Somali relief with descriptions of agencies currently on the ground. The United Methodist Committee on Relief reports preparation is under way with partners to respond to the crisis.