Somalia is our shame

2011-08-16 00:00

AN estimated 11 million people in Somalia have been affected by the current famine, and about 3 000 children are thought to have died in the past two weeks alone. Many are displaced to neighbouring countries, creating new socioeconomic pressures for poor Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda.

We as Africa and as the broader international community have failed the people of Somalia and surrounding countries for the umpteenth time. How do we explain this crisis and the slow responses to it?

For two successive seasons, Somalia has experienced the worst drought in 60 years. For several months now, the Somalis have not been able to cultivate anything, while those who had seed stored have been forced to eat it. Livestock has also dwindled rather quickly. The aid groups that used to help them in difficult times were forced out by an armed group called Al-Shabaab in 2009.

The drought has caused severe famine in Somalia also because this country has really deep levels of poverty, a general feature of the horn of Africa region as a whole. This is related to fundamental distortions in the economies and social systems in this region. Part of the fragility of countries in the horn has to do with the high percentage of people who are trapped in structural poverty, a condition where people spend their whole lives in abject poverty in comparison with those who have a chance to live decent lives.

The magisterial book by John Iliffe titled The African Poor suggests that due to Africa’s political economy and its place in the global economy, Africans have been accustomed to coping with the long-term threat of structural poverty or the predictable shortages of food that recur from season to season, year to year. What has often pushed them into deep deprivation and death is occasional encounters with what he calls conjectural poverty, which is difficulties caused by severe, but temporary changes in availability of food due to an unusual drought, incidents of conflict or a ruthless political system.

Conjectural poverty comes unexpectedly and often suddenly, thus limiting the ability of the African poor to find ways of coping with food shortages. Coming on top of structural poverty, conjectural poverty weakens coping mechanisms and quickly depletes food stores. We know from historical records that even our region — southern Africa — encountered these kinds of food crises, especially during wars, colonial conquest in the Eastern Cape and among the Khoi in the Western Cape, and after unfortunate incidents like the calamitous prophesy by Nongqawuse during the early colonial period. Under normal circumstances, the Khoisan, the Sotho, Nguni and Vhembe groups used mechanisms like bartering, group labour and ceding of possessions to mitigate socioeconomic difficulties.

The same can be said about the people of Somalia who have now lived for 22 years without a functional government and in conditions of internecine conflict. They have had many seasons of drought, but they pulled through because they are adept at pooling resources, working for each other and rescuing the least fortunate among them. They are avid traders and they travel the whole of Africa to make ends meet. They have the most philanthropic diaspora living in the West and the new East.

Sadly, the scale of the drought-induced food crisis has breached these indigenous coping mechanisms. It requires external assistance. There are many reasons proffered for tardy responses from Africa and others. Key among these are weakened effectiveness of the regional mechanism created to deal with these circumstances, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The second is that lacking in obvious economic potential and with little natural resources in its soil, the usual helpers could not find strategic benefits for their humanitarian aid. Thirdly, the focus on the global economic crisis and political problems in North Africa overshadowed the Somali famine story. Fourthly, the food-security mechanisms like seed storage, food-reserve facilities and linkages among early warning systems are all weak,

There is a need, therefore, to strengthen early warning mechanisms and to sensitise the world to the need to resolve long-standing political and economic challenges in Somalia. South Africa must lead in pushing for serious continental food-reserve facilities for use during famines. There should be work on the revival of traditional coping mechanisms, including finding more drought-resistant food crops to promote.

While the efforts of the Pietermaritzburg-based Gift of the Givers group should be commended and supported, we should all be ashamed for taking very little interest in the Somali conundrum as a whole, and the famine in particular.





• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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