Somalia's Starvation

How to End the Famine and Weaken the Insurgents

Courtesy Reuters

The ongoing famine in Somalia has placed millions of Somalis at risk. On August 5, the U.S. government estimated that the famine had taken the lives of more than 29,000 children under the age of five. A total of 3.7 million Somalis -- almost half the country's population -- are in need of emergency relief, and more than 750,000 are now in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

For several weeks, it appeared that the international community would be unable to aid those suffering from starvation. But developments over the past two weeks offer at least modest hope that key obstacles to food aid delivery may be overcome.

The conditions that led to Somalia's famine were already apparent late last year. The country had been beset by corruption, political instability, and an insurgency pitting 9,000 African Union peacekeepers, protecting a weak transitional government, against al Shabab, an Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda that controls southern Somalia. The armed violence, which has raged for four and a half years, has crippled the economy and, according to the United Nations, displaced an estimated 1.4 million people. Then, in 2010, Somalia began to suffer its worst drought in 60 years, just as food and fuel prices spiked worldwide. The crisis fully erupted in July, when the worsening humanitarian crisis reached a tipping point and the UN announced famine conditions across parts of southern Somalia. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis in famine-stricken areas fled to the capital, Mogadishu, and Kenya in search of aid.

At first, the international community could do little to aid the victims of the famine. Most relief agencies had suspended operations in Somalia two years earlier, due to attacks on their aid workers by a variety of armed groups, including al Shabab. When the famine was announced in July, those agencies no longer possessed the networks and infrastructure necessary to operate in the country and distribute aid effectively. The organizations that remained had only a limited presence and could not boost their capacity on such short notice

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