Reports out of the Horn of Africa could not be much worse. Three new regions of Somalia are officially in famine conditions; this is the first such UN declaration of famine in decades. Thousands have aleady died and are dying as you read these words; refugees fleeing the famine continue to seek aid at camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Catholic Relief Services reports that refugees are "pouring across the border into Kenya. Refugee camps near the town of Dabaab are overflowing with people desperately searching for food during the drought-led food crisis that is plaguing East Africa." CRS is currently feeding more than 1 million.
The U.S. AID's Famine Early Warning system reports: "The current situation represents the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world today and Africa’s worst food security crisis since Somalia’s 1991/92 famine. Further deterioration is considered likely given the very high levels of both severe acute malnutrition and under-5 mortality in combination with an expectation of worsening pasture and water availability, a continued increase in local cereal prices, and a below-average Gu season harvest. During the 1991/92 famine, a significant 'wave' of mortality occurred following the start of the October rains, despite widespread food assistance, because health interventions were inadequate to prevent major disease outbreaks."
The worst drought in 50 years is the major cause of the famine, coupled with the disruption caused by the presence of al-Shabaab Islamic militants in the worst-hit regions, and the complete ineffectiveness of the Somali central government, such as it is. But rising food costs have played a role in the famine; U.S. AID reports that local cereal prices across the south are more than double and triple 2010 prices. Further complicating matters was the 2008 designation of al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization. After 2008, U.S. funding to the World Food Programme in Somalia fell precipitously, from $150 million to just $13 million last year. Plus the terrorist designation meant that diversions of U.S. aid to al-Shabaab, for instance, to pay off fighters or get through roadblocks, could have resulted in U.S. prosecutions of humanitarian agencies for funding terrorists. That possibility had been complicating matters for humanitarian relief workers, concerned that they could be considered in violation of U.S. law when seeking to aid the starving in areas controlled by al-Shabaab.
The State Department tried to clarify matters on Aug. 2, advising that "aid workers who are partnering with the U.S. Government to help save lives under difficult and dangerous conditions are not in conflict with U.S. laws and regulations that seek to limit the resources or to eliminate resources flowing to al-Shabaab." U.S. officials said they wanted to "reassure humanitarian assistance organizations and workers that good-faith efforts to deliver food to people in need will not risk prosecution."
It's probably a relief to first responders in this crisis to hear that one complicating factor has been reduced, but the effort ahead promises to be overwhelming—more than 11 million are currently at risk—and exceedingly dangerous as aid workers attempt to work with the mercurial fighters of al-Shabaab.
Find out how you can help at Catholic Relief Services: www.crs.org.