Famine in East Africa
AFRICA, 1 Aug 2011
Logistical Nightmare Hinders Aid Efforts in Somalia
Millions are starving and parents are watching their children die. Meanwhile militant groups are terrorizing the region. The situation in the Horn of Africa is becoming increasingly desperate. Aid organizations are facing enormous difficulties in their attempts to help hundreds of thousands of those suffering, but it’s a race against time they seem to be losing.
In the refugee camps, aid workers encounter sick people and emaciated children too weak to swallow food. They see parents who must bury their own babies after watching them starve to death. Many more people die before they even reach the camp. The world has been watching as people in East Africa go hungry. Now, the international community is finally taking action. Germany has doubled its relief aid to the famine-plagued region, and dramatic appeals from aid organizations are starting to have an impact. The most disastrous effects of the drought are being witnessed in Somalia, and the situation is worsening with each day.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Somalis are arriving daily in the Dadaab refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, as well as Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado camp. Others are seeking safety in the embattled Somali capital of Mogadishu. The United Nations is planning an airlift that will bring supplies to the unstable city, including a special protein-rich, peanut-based paste meant to feed the hungry.
But the aid isn’t reaching the people still stuck in the country’s crisis areas. In southern Somalia, some 2.2. million people are starving. The al-Shabab militant group reigns over large parts of the region and prevents urgently needed emergency aid from reaching those who are suffering.
But will greater aid money translate into more help? SPIEGEL ONLINE lays out the logistical nightmare that must be navigated to deliver relief supplies — and the problems that aid workers face each step of the way.
Where Can the Aid Best Be Provided?
Across the Horn of Africa, millions of people face the threat of starving to death. Organizing aid for such masses of people would be difficult even in a peaceful country with intact infrastructure. But parts of East Africa are a logistical nightmare. Somalia, where years of civil war have ravaged the country and torn apart its infastructure, is especially vulnerable.
Somalia has not seen a capable centralized government in power since 1991. The current government has no control over a number of areas in the country. Even the capital of Mogadishu is partially controlled by militia groups, making it almost impossible to deliver relief supplies. In southern Somalia, the situation is so bad that in early 2010 the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) withdrew completely from the region: Militant groups simply would not allow them to carry out their work.
The situation in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, countries also feeling the effects of the drought, is better. Here, international aid organizations have been permitted to erect refugee camps, where they can distribute food, tents, blankets and cooking pots. But problems exist here too: The Dadaab camp in Kenya, where many Somalis have fled, is already overcrowded.
“In Kenya, there is more certainty that the food will arrive safely,” says Axel Dreher, professor of economics and chair of international and development politics at the University of Heidelberg. “They have more refugees concentrated in one area, which makes for more effective distribution than if goods are sent from village to village.”
People who have made it to the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are faring better than those in Somalia — but this also creates the danger that they will not want to return to their home countries later. “If you provide food in Kenya, you will attract more and more people,” says Dreher.
Rainer Lang of the Alliance Development Works (Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft), a group of German relief and aid organizations, also cautions against the danger aid dependence. He warns that if people do not have the opportunity to work, they will come to rely on aid. It is therefore important to enable people to “continue living in their normal environment,” he says, for instance by distributing animal feed and water to maintain cattle herds in drought areas. In order to effectively overcome the crisis, refugees would preferrably be helped within Somali borders, acknowledges Simone Pott, spokeswoman for German Agro Aid (Welthungerhilfe), a German aid organization that targets hunger around the world. “But the situation there is too chaotic,” she says.
Who Is Providing Aid on the Scene in Africa?
Many international relief organizations are working with local partners to deliver aid. These are often smaller non-governmental organizations, staffed by locals who know their way around the region.
In Somalia, government-affiliated agencies are the wrong place for international organizations to turn for partnering on aid delivery. Germany’s Alliance Development Works, for instance, has a policy of not working with government institutions in many places. In such alliances, Lang says, it is impossible to control where the funding goes. He warns that aid money “can seep into any number of channels.”
Alliance Development Works requires its partner organizations to keep detailed records. “That way, we have control over what happens to the money right up to the end,” says Lang. The people working on location inform them of what items are most needed — be it food, blankets, tarps or even mosquito nets.
Where Are the Aid Supplies Purchased?
Lang stresses that there is no point in blindly funnelling money into a region: It’s essential to pinpoint the concrete needs of those in need through aid workers on the ground. Once they know what items are needed, every detail has to be determined in concrete terms. Say an aid organization wants to provide 3,000 newly arrived families from Mogadishu with food and water for a three-month period. The calculations might be made as follows: Each family will need 30 kilos of rice, 30 kilos of beans, 15 liters of cooking oil and a few canisters of water.
One especially controversial issue is the question of how much food should be bought locally. The WFP, for instance, obtains some of the goods it distributes in famine regions from southern Africa — including corn, millet and wheat. “It’s best to buy locally in order to support the local structures,” says WFP Germany spokeswoman Katharina Weltecke. Other organizations also point to advantages in buying local, since doing so can help support African farmers and save on transport costs.
Doris Fuchs of the University of Münster in Germany says importing goods from Europe or the United States can have dire consequences, because it can “destroy local markets and can often lead to a continuation of the crises.” The problem, however, is that there are limits to how much food can be taken from other regions — take too much and a new food crisis could develop elsewhere. “When many organizations buy foodstuffs all at once, local markets become overloaded and prices are driven up,” says Lang. As a result, fewer people can afford food.
How Is Aid Being Delivered to Those in Need?
Each day, trucks loaded with supplies depart Nairobi and Addis Ababa for refugee camps. Although numerous aid organizations have warehouses in the major cities, many of these are slowly being emptied. “We urgently need more financial support,” says WFP spokeswoman Weltecke. In a worst case scenario, a lack of funds would mean that the food supplies could not be transported and would have to remain in storage — where they can’t do anyone any good. “Dramatic shortages will occur if no new funds are approved,” says Weltecke.
In recent days, Alliance Development Works begin offering aid beyond Mogadishu, expanding into the central region of Galguduud. “The rebels are allowing us to work there. That changed just a week ago because the people were dying off,” says Lang.
It’s dangerous there, but he says that armed escorts would hardly make a difference. The added expense would increase the costs of transportation on the roads, and it is unlikely that the guards would be able to cope with any massive attacks. Additionally, any use of violence would shatter the one major advantage the aid organizations have over the militant groups: their neutrality. They would otherwise be automatically drawn into the conflict, Lang believes.
The UN is considering an air drop, in which planes release aid supplies from the air. But even this tactic is dangerous — and very expensive. It’s impossible to control who receives the packages of supplies, which could inadvertently provide prime means for militant groups to make a profit. An air drop that falls into the wrong hands could thus spark further conflicts in the region. It would be better to fly in the goods and have UN peacekeeping forces distribute them on the ground. But given the current dangers, this simply isn’t a possibility.
How Will the Aid Be Disbursed to the People?
Delivering the goods alone isn’t enough — distribution of supplies can be just as big a challenge. “The key question is always: Do the aid organizations have access to those who need help? Will they be present for the distribution of food?” says Simone Pott of German Agro Aid.
In Mogadishu, the WFP is operating out of two secure centers guarded by UN peacekeeping forces. Some 100 refugees show up every day to receive food.
Aid groups who want to work outside of Mogadishu and distribute goods in the surrounding villages must first clarify questions concerning distribution with the community there. “We don’t just drive there, throw the supplies down and drive away again,” says Lang of Alliance Development Works. One has to “be careful that the distribution of foodstuffs doesn’t lead to conflict among the people — because then only the strongest can prevail.”
What’s more, if the chief of the clan in the village denies the organization’s request to oversee distribution, it’s difficult to do anything, says Lang. And if a gang arrives and seizes the newly delivered aid supplies, there’s nothing they can do to prevent that.
Aid workers are constantly at risk of being attacked and robbed, or taken hostage, by al-Shabab militants, and bribe money can’t help the situation. “If you start to pay bribes, you simply set off a vicious cycle,” explains Lang. Professor Dreher of the University of Heidelberg agrees that bribes are unlikely to have much impact: “What’s the incentive to take bribes if they can simply grab all the relief supplies plus the aid workers — for whom they can get a ransom?”
What Lessons Can Be Learned from the Catastrophe for the Future?
“Starvation is not a scandal of yesterday, it’s a scandal of today and if we don’t do anything now, it will also be a scandal tomorrow.” That’s the ominous warning that came from Bruno Le Maire, France’s minister of food, agriculture and fishing, during Monday’s UN crisis conference on the situation in East Africa.
But what can best help in the longterm? What makes the situation in East Africa especially bad, experts say, is that emergency relief and long-term development aid are incredibly difficult to address simultaneously. “The urgent focus is on saving human lives, to provide help in the face of a catastrophe rather than development aid,” says the University of Heidelberg’s Dreher. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) at least $1.6 billion dollars (€2.1 billion) are needed just to address the current crisis alone.
The are enormous hurdles to implementing lasting improvements in East Africa, especially Somalia. “Long-term development of agricultural supplies would have to be ensured. But that is extremely difficult to do in a ‘failed state’,” says Dreher. Even if one were to plant drought-resistant crops, for instance, there would be no guarantee against the nearest group of militants cashing in on the harvest, he explains.
One option would be to lend military support to Somalia’s transitional government so that the stability needed to develop sustainable agriculture could be achieved. Such an initiative, coupled with improvements to the infrastructure, could help convince refugees to return to their homeland.
However, a strategy focused only on Somalia would not go far enough. Global developments in trade and climate change must also be taken into account. For now, though, simply stemming the flood of refugees would be a huge accomplishment.
If this autumn’s rainy season doesn’t materialize, the situation could get even worse, warns German Agro Aid’s Pott. Without rain, she warns, “we may not have reached the peak of the crisis yet.”
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