Somalis face hunger, their government avoids declaring famine
Humanitarian organizations believe Somalia's officials are rejecting a formal declaration of famine, which would allow aid to enter the country and save lives.
A malnourished child is rushed into a clinic in Somalia almost every minute of every day. With crops and animals ravaged by the worst drought to hit the country in four decades, millions of Somalis face famine in an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
According to interviews with government officials, humanitarian workers, and analysts acquainted with internal government talks, the Somali government has been reluctant for months to announce that the country is facing famine.
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Relief workers revealed that such a statement would allow significantly more help to flow — as happened during a 2011 famine — and draw the attention of Western funders, who are presently focused on responding to the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud's government, which came to power in May, has resisted the designation for a variety of reasons.
Why isn't the government declaring famine?
First and foremost, the fledgling government is concerned that it will undermine public trust and play into the hands of the terrorist group Al Shabaab, just as the military has launched a large-scale offensive against the insurgents, who have plagued the country for decades and continue to launch devastating attacks.
The Somali administration is also concerned that declaring famine may cause an outflow of people from affected areas into major cities and towns, pressuring already scarce resources and increasing crime.
They are also afraid that declaring famine may deter investors and divert international relief money away from long-term development programs like health care, education, and climate resilience.
The President acknowledged the dilemma in September, saying, “The risk is very high to announce a famine.” Such a declaration, he said, “does not affect the famine victims only, but halts the development and changes the perspectives and everything.”
Threshold for famine reached
Over the past few weeks, frustrated humanitarian workers have claimed that the famine threshold has already been reached in some locations, and they have urged the government to declare a famine in order to draw attention to the problem.
The food crisis affects not only Somalia's 16 million people but an estimated 37 million people throughout the Horn of Africa. Climate change is one of the primary causes of the crisis, and it is the subject of the COP27 climate meeting, which began on Sunday in Egypt.
“The government is afraid of the F-word — famine, that is,” said an aid worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “But the situation is catastrophic and the longer they wait, the worse it gets.”
A famine is declared when 20% of households in an area experience extreme scarcity of food, 30% of children suffer from acute malnutrition, and two adults or four children per 10,000 die from starvation every day. While specialists can define famines and humanitarian organizations can issue warnings, the decision to declare a famine ultimately rests with a country's government and UN agencies.
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By opposing a famine declaration, Somali officials attempt to buy time and hope that much-needed cash will eventually arrive, according to Mohamed Husein Gaas, head of the Raad Peace Research Institute in Mogadishu, the capital. “But that is not a good policy,” Gaas said. “We need to move fast and save lives.”
Famine may soon be declared in severely affected areas of Somalia. United Nations experts have just finished gathering data on the drought situation and are currently studying it before presenting their findings in mid-November – a step that could prompt authorities to declare a famine.
According to relief organizations, international financing has surged since September, when the United Nations said that famine was "on the horizon" in Somalia. Experts revealed that fund-raising efforts aren’t growing as fast as needed and that donors should have responded to last year’s early warnings to prevent large-scale deaths and displacement now.
For the time being, relief workers say they are racing against the clock to ensure that no more Somalis perish on their watch, as they did in 2011. "One child dying is far too many," Hassan, the Somali NGO's chairman, said.