New President Hassan Sheikh has to respond to the imminent deaths of tens of thousands from starvation – a calamity which his foes, local and foreign, will try to exploit
The worsening drought and food crisis in Somalia – where someone is likely to die every 48 seconds from acute hunger linked to conflict according to British aid agencies – presents President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud with harsh choices (Dispatches 15/7/22, Drought and fall-out from Moscow's war may trigger catastrophic famine). It is also a test for the international system. Can it cope, helped by generous donor funding, with a calamity in Ukraine and Eastern Europe at the same time as saving thousands of lives in the Horn of Africa, whose security and climate crises have been largely sidelined this year?
Hassan Sheikh was congratulated by the United States and the European Union for his election victory in May (AC Vol 63 No 12, Hassan Sheikh takes Mogadishu by storm). But how does he persuade them to move faster to help counter the combined effects of the worst drought in four decades, spiralling grain prices due to Moscow's war on Ukraine, and attacks from Al Shabaab, which are preventing emergency relief getting to some of the people who need it most?
Should Hassan Sheikh announce formally that Somalia is in a famine? It would be a technical admission that its food crisis, measured in supply failures and death rates, had escalated to that level of humanitarian emergency. That would draw international attention, and probably more funding. But it would have its own unpalatable political implications for the new President.
Still more unacceptable to Hassan Sheikh are calls, from some international agencies, to negotiate with Al Shabaab, Al Qaida's biggest international jihadist affiliate, to distribute relief aid to some of the most contested areas. That would involve payments to Al Shabaab, which would strengthen their forces. Hassan Sheikh insists he has his own timetable and strategy for structured talks with the Islamist militia.
Yet the options are getting starker. About 7 million of Somalia's 17m people are struggling to get food; some 1.5m children are malnourished and need medical treatment. In the wider region, at least 18m lives are at risk. It's yet to be officially acknowledged but Somalia faces a famine worse than that which killed over 250,000 people in 2011, warn the London-based Overseas Development Institute, Oxfam and Save the Children. Conditions were made worse in 2011 because the authorities were reluctant to accept that the crisis met the technical definition of a famine which would have triggered a surge of relief aid.
Urgent shipments of food aid are needed but funding is well under half the US$1.5 billion that the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said was needed at the beginning of the year. On her swing through the Horn in the week ending 30 July, Samantha Power, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged $476m but Britain and the EU are giving much less, as they shift resources to help Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
In Britain, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella group of charities, collected more donations for Ukraine and its neighbours than its nine previous appeals combined. There has been no such DEC appeal for the Horn of Africa this year although many more lives are at risk.
Simon Clarke, Britain's Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said on 24 July that the government was cutting 'non-essential' spending due to concerns about over-spending on relief work in Ukraine. That prompted Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for International Development, to warn that this would 'undoubtedly cost lives' in some of the poorest countries in the world and further damage Britain's reputation.
Others are also falling short. In April, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) hosted a roundtable in Geneva which raised almost $1.4bn in 'new' pledges for the Horn of Africa. But experts at the ODI say only $300m of that was new money and contrast it with the $1.6bn raised by the UN's Ukraine Flash Appeal after Russia invaded in February.
These discrepancies challenge many of the operating assumptions of the international system. UN officials and African governments weren't surprised by the weight of attention paid by western governments and journalists to Ukraine in the wake of Russia's invasion, given its regional security implications.
But they argue this does not absolve the UN and other international humanitarian agencies from their core responsibility – to distribute relief aid 'solely on the basis of need'. There is particular anger that the World Bank appears to be missing in action in the Horn of Africa, having made some $150bn available internationally when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
Three decades ago, Somalis grew almost 80% of the food they ate but climate change and political instability destroyed that self-sufficiency. A bigger point is that global warming will increase the frequency of droughts such as those in the Horn of Africa where temperatures are forecast to rise by 3-4 degrees Celsius by 2080. That argues for much more work and resources to be directed to adaptation and preparatory measures, to strengthen food storage and distribution networks, well ahead of the type of desperate emergency that the region now faces.