Manufacturing a famine: How Somalia crisis became a fund-raising opportunity
Posted Sunday, October 2 2011 at 18:59
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On July 18 this year, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and
Eritrea tabled a report to the UN Security Council.
The report stated that United Nations agencies, international humanitarian
aid organisations and local Somali non-governmental organisations had been
forced to move their operations or cease them entirely in many parts of
Somalia, mainly due to “an alarming void in international humanitarian aid
and development assistance,” and also because of “threats from elements of
Al Shabaab,” who control much of southern Somalia.
Two days later, the UN’s World Food Programme — the largest distributor of
food aid to Somalia — declared that Bakool and Lower Shebelle, two regions
in southern Somalia, had been hit by the worst famine in 20 years.
The UN agency further claimed that 3.7 million people across the country —
almost half the total Somali population – were in danger of starving, of
which 2.8 million were in the south.
This declaration led to a massive multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign
by UN and international humanitarian agencies. Meanwhile, journalists began
referring to the famine as a “biblical event.” By September, Time magazine
was reporting that the famine had expanded and that a full 12.4 million
people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda were at
risk from hunger.
The magazine also stated that in southern Somalia, 63 per cent of the
population was either starving or at risk of it.
These figures did not convince many Somali analysts, including Ahmed Jama, a
Nairobi-based agricultural economist and former consultant with the UN’s
Food and Agricultural Organisation.
“I was disturbed by the WFP announcement because Lower Shebelle is Somalia’s
breadbasket and had even experienced a bumper harvest last year,” he told
UN agencies, including WFP, use an Integrated Phase Classification (IPC)
scale developed by the FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit
(FSNAU) to determine levels of food insecurity, which range from “generally
food secure” to “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.”
IPC uses a number of indicators to pronounce a famine: Acute malnutrition in
more than 30 per cent of children; two deaths per 10,000 people daily; a
pandemic illness; access to less than four litres of water and 2,100
kilocalories of food a day; large scale displacement; civil strife; and
complete loss of assets and income.
Jama says that the IPC scale is too broad to be useful because it could
apply to virtually every African country, where malnutrition and poverty
levels are generally high.
“In the case of Somalia, the timing of the UN’s famine appeal appeared
suspect, as it coincided with the beginning of the peak harvest season in
July and the start of the short rains, known as Deyr, in September,” he
adds. “And this is not the first time that a famine has been declared. It
seems that in the past 20 years, Somalia has been in a permanent state of
crisis, instead of moving towards development despite the myriad development
agencies operating in the country.”
“Historically, people from Bay and Bakool move to Lower Shebelle during a
drought and go back during the short rainy season between August and
September,” says Jama. “So, even if there are people who face starvation in
food insecure areas, their migration to Lower Shebelle is usually temporary,
and does not warrant a declaration of famine.”
Luca Alivoni, the head of FAO-Somalia insists, however, that the food crisis
in southern Somalia affected farmers more than pastoralists in the north
because farmers tend to stay on their farms “to protect their crops”,
whereas pastoralists migrate with their animals to areas where there is
“Farmers cannot move with their land, so when there is a famine, they face
starvation,” he says. “And that is why Lower Shebelle was so affected.”
But was there really widespread famine, or were the famine figures
exaggerated or misinterpreted? FSNAU’s estimates for Somali populations “in
crisis” in the period August-September 2011 were highest in the most fertile
southern parts of Somalia, and were highest in those areas controlled by Al
Significantly, there were only 490,000 people (less than one-eighth of
Nairobi’s population) in Somalia who were experiencing what the IPC
classifies as “famine” or a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
In fact, about half of the nearly four million people that the WFP claims
are starving are actually experiencing what is known as a “humanitarian
emergency”; the rest are in an “acute food and livelihood crisis.”
Therefore, I think the widely reported “famine” in Somalia is highly
exaggerated. What Somalia is experiencing is generalised food insecurity,
not widespread famine. Unfortunately, most media organisations have failed
to mention or comprehend this fact.
Is it possible that the “famine” in Somalia was “manufactured” to raise
funds? The sequence of events leading to the famine appeal certainly raises
suspicions. According to Jama, the timing of the famine declaration in July
was probably a response to the shortfall of funds that WFP has recently been
experiencing and also to divert attention from the criticism that the UN
agency was subjected to after the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia released
its 2010 report in March last year.
Then, WFP was castigated by the UN Monitoring Group for colluding with
corrupt Somali contractors who are known to sell or divert food aid. Sources
interviewed by the Monitoring Group — an entity mandated by the UN Security
Council to monitor arms embargo violations in Somalia — estimated that up to
half of the food aid reaching Somalia was regularly diverted, not just by
Somali transport contractors, but by WFP personnel and NGOs operating in
Somalia. That 2010 report led some donors, notably the US, to withdraw
funding to WFP’s operations in Somalia.
However, the European Commission is one of the major donors that has
continued to support the UN’s efforts in Somalia since 1995.
The EC has been providing core funding to various projects to enhance food
security in Somalia, which are implemented by various UN agencies and
international NGOs, including FAO. Currently, the EC has committed a total
of 175 million euros to various programmes and projects throughout Somalia
that deal with governance, security, health and education. In Lower
Shebelle, the bulk of the EC’s assistance goes towards rural development and
food security projects, mainly for irrigation rehabilitation and crop
diversification. The share of rural development and food security projects
receiving EC funding is also high in the Middle Shabelle region, where
almost half the EC funding goes towards these projects.
Given the high level of EC investment towards rural development and food
security in the past 15 years, it is paradoxical that southern Somalia
should continuously suffer from acute food insecurity. Georges-Marc André,
the European Union representative to Somalia, told this writer that this
could be due to the fact that the full impact of EC investments have not yet
been realised in Somalia. Besides, he adds, much of the agriculture in
Somalia is rain-fed and poor rains last year could have contributed to the
famine this year.
Alivoni, on the other hand, blames lack of sufficient investments in
Somalia’s agricultural sector. He says that while the EC funding is welcome,
it is just a drop in the ocean, and a lot more funds need to be devoted to
agriculture to prevent another famine.
Jama, who has studied EC-funded rural development projects in Somalia, finds
these arguments weak, considering that much of the EC funding is ostensibly
used to rehabilitate irrigation infrastructure and to improve the capacity
of farming communities. “Clearly, there is a mismatch between the resources
made available by the EC to UN agencies such as FAO and the dismal picture
emerging from what are generally considered the most agriculturally
productive regions of southern Somalia,” he says.
“How is it possible that millions of euros of investment could not avert a
famine in those regions?”
Assessment and monitoring of project success or failure is further
complicated by the fact that the EC is not in a position to evaluate
projects it funds in Somalia; that job falls on the implementing agencies.
According to André, “The EC is not entitled to do external audits of the UN
agencies that it funds,” thanks to a 2003 Financial and Administrative
Framework Agreement (FIFA) that permits UN organisations to “manage EC
contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”.
In essence, this means that the UN agencies that the EC funds monitor and
evaluate their own projects, without recourse to an external auditor or
evaluator. And because the EC is a donor, and not the implementer of
projects, it largely relies on the UN to provide it with the data and
performance reports on projects that it funds. This is problematic, because
it means that the UN agencies can easily manipulate the data and the reports
to suit their own agendas, needs and funding requirements.
UN ‘slowing down’ Somalia’s recovery
The EU representative to Somalia, however, cautiously admits that the EC is
concerned that its efforts in Somalia are being hampered by UN agencies that
are flooding Mogadishu with food aid. In an environment where free food is
readily available, he explains, farmers do not get value for their produce,
which suppresses food production.
Agencies also often work at cross-purposes, with the lack of co-ordination
meaning the work of one agency could in effect cancel out the work of
another. André says that UN agencies such as WFP and UNDP could actually
have “slowed down” Somalia’s recovery by focusing exclusively on food aid,
instead of supporting local farmers and markets.
Phillippe Royan, a technical adviser to the EC’s Directorate General for
Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), says that a number of donor agencies are also
beginning to question WFP’s ability to deliver food aid in all regions of
Somalia. “It seems that most of the food aid is concentrated in Mogadishu
and does not extend beyond Gaalkacyo (in central Somalia),” he notes.
“This means that affected populations have to walk long distances to reach
the food, which carries other hazards. For instance, they could die on the
way or be raped. ”
WFP has conducted a very aggressive fundraising campaign to cover the needs
of south and central Somalia till the end of the year, says Royan. But what
are those needs, and who is assessing them?
According to Royan, FSNAU — which is funded by the EC, and partly by USAid,
the Italian government and WFP — is the only setup that provides data on
food insecurity in Somalia. Almost every humanitarian organisation relies on
its data to assess malnutrition and famine levels in the country. However,
given the fact that almost a third of Somalia is “governed” by Al Shabaab,
which has banned most UN agencies from operating in areas that it controls,
the question arises how FSNAU managed to get so much detailed information on
regions such as Bakool and Lower Shebelle, which are Al Shabaab strongholds.
Grainne Moloney, FSNAU’s chief technical advisor, says that her unit’s
nutrition surveillance project has 32 full-time Somali field staff and a
part-time enumerator network of some 120 people all over Somalia who gather
data and do surveys on food security and nutrition.
“There is a common perception that (aid) agencies don’t operate in the Al
Shabaab-controlled areas,” she says, “but many agencies work well and
quietly in those areas. However, most agencies do not publicise their
presence for security reasons.”
What is surprising in the case of Somalia is that the FAO does not see the
contradiction between implementing multimillion-euro rural development and
food security projects in southern Somalia and at the same time declaring
those regions as food insecure. If the projects had been successful, there
might not have been a food crisis in the country — with or without Al
Shabaab. And if they were not successful, then are the EC funds not wasted
The FAO-managed FSNAU says that the latest crisis in Somalia is due to the
failure of the Deyr rainy season last year and poor performance of the long
Gu rainy season from April to June this year, which resulted in the worst
crop production in 17 years.
The question we might ask is: Why are Somali farmers still relying on the
rains when EC and other donors have contributed millions towards irrigation
It is possible these projects were not successful – that most of the funds
went to administrative overheads or were mismanaged by project
Whatever the case, the crisis in Somalia should prompt a rethink at every
level of the aid effort.
Rasna Warah is a columnist with the Daily Nation. rasna.warah_at_gmail.com
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Received on Sun Oct 02 2011 - 13:46:56 EDT