New arrivals wait to get processed original via Oxfam East Africa @ Flickr

The original photo is here, my alteration is here. If I had to title the alteration, I would call it An Homage to Motherhood.

This post is a bit random in nature, but it is a compilation of some sources and commentary and thought. So think of it as more of a collage than a strict narrative. Much of this was originally posted on Google .

Thought 1: Early Warning Systems Worked

We’ve known this was coming for well over six months. According to here, it has been well known since November 2010 which seems about right to me. Those that are paid to do handle these things were trying their best (more on that in a minute) to address the situation but were unable to deliver the food aid at that time. There’s little to suggest that anything has changed in the interim and delivery of the aid will somehow be magically easier.

Up here in Somaliland we were taking bucket showers as early as March of this year. Although it does take a while to get to the point where there is a certified famine (due to a strict criteria to certify a disaster/drought as a famine), all of the early warning systems worked. The rains ended up coming for Somaliland, but they did not come (until a couple of weeks ago, and way too late for the livestock and vegetables) for the South. Yet in Somaliland the Government took a lot of steps to ease the suffering of the pastoralists and farmers in their territory.

Amaryta Sen is famous for saying that all famines are avoidable failures of governments. Somaliland’s government passed that test. Ministers were out escorting water tankers into the country-side, TV shows on water conservation were aired on national television (not that Somalis need these lessons, but anyway), and mostly it was a local re-distribution effort rather than an international aid effort.

It is an impossible hypothetical what would have happened if the rains had not come to Somaliland. Yet, I suspect that the efforts would have been decently well-thought out and executed as a community. All of it would have been led by Somalis with the international community playing a supporting role, as it should be.

Thought 2: Extent of Suffering

The famine is confined to two regions of very Southern Somalia which are sparsely populated to begin with. Although millions are at risk, it isn’t millions that are actually suffering. This isn’t meant to minimize the suffering of those that are suffering, it is simply to bring some perspective. I’m not cynical, how can you be when you look at pictures like this.

Coincidentally, these are the same areas where al-Shabaab has a very strong control over the population. One picture that has certainly caught my eye is of a Shabaab soldier with rows and rows of squatting women behind him looking distraught. The photographer obviously focused on the warrior, but the women in the background are the stars of the shot for me. It is a soberingly iconic reminder of what is really going on. See the picture here, and look close.

Shabaab has been playing both sides of this issue. First they banned nearly every aid agency from working in their zones. This was a long time ago, and ironically enough when I’ve been in Nairobi talking to people who work in the South they were telling me that the (non-Somali) agencies which were allowed to continue working were faith-based organizations like World Vision and ADRA. Mostly these organizations were headed by one or at most two Kenyans and largely they were left alone to do their work, except for one young aid worker I heard about who was killed by Shabaab for proselytizing. We may feel bad for the man’s family, but it was a bit of Darwinism at work if you ask me.

Thought 3: Aid Agency Dysfunctionalism & Restrictions

WFP-Somalia is, for those of us that have been in/worked on Somalia for more than 30 seconds, about the most dysfunctional organization. I have serious doubts that the increases in aid will end up as food in bellies – except for (maybe) those that are working in Daadab where it is a bit more straight-forward to deliver and where there is some semblance of oversight. Also there are fundamental structural problems with the way aid agencies (including NGOs and UN organs) are built and work. See here for a great discussion of this (but rather technical if you’re not into the biz of aid/development). The summary:

In summary, a major reason why aid agency presence has not translated into reduced vulnerability to, for example, famine, is due to aid agencies not being geared to do just that:

  • Aid agencies do not build their programs around context, but are influenced by donor interest, assumptions, internal capacity and their own models of approach.
  • Aid agencies don’t have resources that can be quickly tasked from one mode of operation (development) to another (emergency response).
  • Aid agencies’ internal measuring systems do not hold them accountable to how well they reduce the risk of a disaster happening, only on how well they acheive project deliverables.
  • And aid agencies own internal systems and staffing do not allow a seamless transition from a long-term development presence to an emergency response.

Yes, the international community has made many mistakes. But I do not believe that it is the role of the international community to lead at times like this. I strongly believe that the role of the international community is to support local efforts with materiale, technical assistance, logistics expertise, and funding. I am disheartened by the increasing frequency of calls for an intervention on the level of the 92/93 intervention which burst the New World Order bubble and ushered in a decade of UN futility as the world’s largest NGO body of political discourse.

Even though it is true that the international community, US, UK, Italy, etc. are definitely not without fault, I’m terribly tired of the narrative which places the entirety of the blame on these external parties. An example is here, where there is an entire, well written post by an educated Somali without the smallest hint of acceptance for any responsibility by the Somali community for what is happening (other than a few “criminals”). Here’s the crux of his argument.

If we had had foresight and acted upon it; if the Marines had disarmed the warlords; if the U.N. Security Council had issued arrest warrants for the warlords early on, stopping them from prolonging the failure of the state; if the Security Council had dealt with the warlords — who had denied starving millions access to food — speedily and decisively, in the same way it dealt with the genocidal regimes in Serbia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan, then al-Qaeda would not have established a secure base from which to plan terrorist attacks. Our country would not have been hamstrung by the enormity of our problem, nor would it have become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

A friend on G asked me a good question:

I would be interested if anybody knows some more details on the reason Al-Shabab has refused to let the aid organisations in. I mean, no matter what they publicly say, I am sure they feel the pressure of famine too. So why is it not possible to find some kind of middle ground? Are the NGOs reluctant to give up control over food deliveries? If yes, is that justified? ~Peter Dorrie

My answer was that that’s part of it. Another big part of it is donor restrictions on supporting terrorist organizations. It is difficult to say with any certainty what Shabaab’s position is as they are terribly decentralized and non-uniform. Their position isn’t terribly rational but it is basically isolationist (like N.Korea, Taliban, Myanmar, etc.). They came to power on an anti-invaders platform and largely have kept to that meme throughout. On top of their irrationalities on banning bras, samosas, music, and anything that is fun, the group is funadamentally more nationalistic than it is Islamist (which is why I have always questioned the depth of their linkages with an Arab-led organization like Al-Qaeda).

There are other things in play. According to this article which examines this in a bit more detail.

The first point I would make is that al Shabab is minimizing the crisis because, as many observers and experts are saying, the movement itself likely made the famine worse. Famines often (always?) result not only from failed rains or population growth, but also government policies, especially denial and inaction. . . . Every indication points to the conclusion that al Shabab not only fit into this regional trend [of refusing to recognize or limiting acknowledgement of the extent of a drought/famine because it highlights the ruling organization's shortcomings or racism], but was – because of its limited resources, its preoccupation with the civil war, and its ideology – a particularly bad offender.

My second thought is that when looking at al Shabab’s hostility to outsiders, it is worthwhile to try to understand the movement’s thinking from the inside. . . . The movement is made up mostly of young men (its name, after all, is Arabic for “the youth”), many of whom were children, or were not even born yet, when the Somali state collapsed in 1991. They have only known war and instability. They have seen weak would-be central governments come and go, they have seen clan rivalry tear at the social and political fabric of the country, and they have seen a parade of external actors, some of whom, like Ethiopia when it occupied Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, carried out massive violence. Growing up in that environment would brutalize many people and make them deeply suspicious of outsiders.

But the famine strikes directly at the relationship between al Shabab and its constituents. The movement is taking a huge risk if it tries to solve this problem through violence and denial. Al Shabab controls territory, and so it must have some local support – support that is likely based in large part on al Shabab’s ability to offer some security and stability after years of fighting. Allowing the famine to go unchecked could destroy whatever local legitimacy al Shabab possesses, potentially resulting in infighting, fragmentation, rebellions, or desertions. From this perspective, it is not difficult to see why al Shabab originally decided to re-admit external aid agencies. And yet it now seems that paranoia and suspicion of outsiders are winning out in the leadership’s thinking.

For an aid worker’s perception of this see this great article by @morealtitude.

An invitation from al Shabbab central command may sound like a good enough reason to think aid workers would be safe re-entering south-central, but in fact it isn’t. Like many insurgency groups, al Shabbab is as much a network of affiliated warlords as it is a hierarchical paramilitary organization. Fighters on the ground- the ones with guns, grenades and IEDs- will align themselves first with their local commander, and only after that with al Shabbab central. Then there’s the assumption that the message is even getting down to those field grunts and their captains. Or the notion that some 16-year-old with an AKM, who’s never been to school but has spent the last ten years being told that westerners are pillaging his country and deserve to die, will pay any attention to some recent order from someone he’s never heard, when he sees an NGO Land Cruiser drive past.

Thought 4: The Role of Somalis

Through all that I’ve read, I am most heartened by the diaspora involvement. Pull up #feedsomalia and you’ll see lots of activity. New, caring diaspora members are increasing their networks and ability to influence. This is a long-term positive.

While the immediate causes of the crisis have been the drought and insecurity in the south, there is something more fundamental at play here. This article digs a bit beyond the boilerplate rhetoric.

Drought is not a new environmental condition for much of Africa but a recurring one. The semi-arid Horn of Africa and the entire Sahelian region — running just south of the Sahara Desert across the continent — have long experienced erratic rainfall. While climate change may be exacerbating rainfall variability, traditional livelihoods in the region are adaptable to deal with situations when rainfall is not dependable. . . .

Traditionally, herders ranged widely across the landscape in search of better pasture, focusing on areas as meteorological conditions dictated. The approach worked because, unlike fenced-in pastures in North America, it was incredibly flexible and adapted to variable rainfall. As farming has expanded, including in some instances to large-scale commercial farms, the routes of herders have become more concentrated and more vulnerable to drought. [Note, the conflict between the pastoralists and agriculturalists is one of the many, many causes of insecurity in the south.] . . .

Just as death from exposure is not an inherent result of a cold winter, famine is not a natural consequence of drought. Simply put, the structure of human society often determines who is affected and to what degree.

Fundamentally, the core of the problem is a breakdown of the social redistribution networks which are a basis of Somali culture (see Somaliland’s reaction described above). The diaspora should be taking the lead, as they are much closer to the realities of the situation than the US Representative for Somalia (we don’t have an ambassador any longer) is to the situation. The more Somali community leaders take charge, accept the situation, and work towards a solution – the faster the entire situation (meaning more than the famine which is temporary) will stabilize and improve.

For more on the diaspora’s efforts, see here (among other places).

Thought 6: Starvation Porn

Poverty/Starvation Porn is very real and am happy that it is being talked about outside of the echo chamber of the “aid bloggers/tweeters” (for lack of a better label). There have been some great articles which have challenged the ethics of this type of coverage, which have come out of the situation. Here’s his punch-line:

Because it’s a cycle. African governments know that drought is coming and they don’t prepare. Foreign charities working there talk about long-term plans to help people become self-sufficient but they’ve been failing to achieve them for 20 years. It’s as much about politics and war and poor economic policies as it is about no rain.

I’m no expert but I know that much. I also know it’s wrong that every few years we’re faced with an “emergency” that could have been prevented, that aid groups must frantically try to raise money to respond to, that journalists need to find emaciated babies at death’s door and film and photograph and write about them before the world gives a damn.

While there is some value in showing the extent of suffering, it definitely skews the situation. While that is great marketing for aid organizations, as most of us who have worked in the developing world intuitively understand increases in aid flows do not necessarily end up as food in bellies or kids’ butts on school benches. As Haiti and Japan have shown there is an absorptive capacity formula to disaster relief whereby increases in aid can end up resulting in more rotten food or spoiled medicines rather than where it was intended. As this post from a former World Vision worker puts it, “Poverty is not an image, or a statistic; poverty has a face, a name and a story.”

Yes, most aid workers are quick to admit that there is a dualism to poverty porn as am sure they are quite happy with what they get in their bank account at the end of the month (and largely it is money that is well deserved as this is very hard work). But it is not easy to see what you’re working on cheapened by skewed coverage. Some of the ads for help, in particular the one on the Tumblr dashboard (can’t upload screenshot for some reason but at least the kids in the photo are smiling).

An aid worker / blogger who I have lots of respect for has put it this way in this article.

Articles are starting to look like a fill-the-blanks template that the reporters are all sharing around: Quote some stats about the famine; talk about the complicating factor of al Shabbab making life difficult in Somalia; drop in some pithy quotes about the fact that short-term aid is repetitive and doesn’t solve the underlying problems (always with a nod to the fact that, well, of course it saves lives now); then end on the dark yet hopeful twist that while aid agencies clearly don’t have it right, clearly what’s needed is ‘long-term solutions’. Yeah, cool, thanks. . . .

But what I’m really ratty about is not that what the media are saying is wrong per se. My problem is, they’re making noise but missing the point. . . . [Point 1] By rabbiting on about long-term solutions (I’m sorry, what solutions did you suggest, exactly?), they make it sound like nobody’s ever come up with that idea before. . . . Point two is, these solutions aren’t simple in the real-world.

Thought 7: What Can Be Done / What Can You Do

Military intervention is about the worst solution human minds could conjure. History should be a lesson here. Somalis are phenomenal at skewing international interventions intended to help as invasions of their sovereignty. And in general Somalis are pretty duplicitous as to outsiders.

Second worst idea to me is trying to deliver via trucks and ground workers within the Shabaab zones. I fundamentally disagree that the US Gov should “work with Shabaab” as this article by Richard Dowden of the Royal African Society argues. This is a golden opportunity for the Somalis to see the results of their acquiescence to Shabaab’s presence. The easiest thing one can learn from Somali history is that when they’re sick of you they’ll find a way to overthrow you. When the communities within the Shabaab zones get sick of them they will kick them out of those communities and I know if I was living in these communities I would certainly be pretty circumspect about Shabaab. Of course no one wants to stay “starve them out” as that is cruel and inhumane treatment, but delivery within Shabaab’s areas I am 64.8% sure will end in a worse situation than never going in. As @morealtitude put it here:

Letting aid workers in solves many problems for al Shabbab. It demonstrates to its own people that it’s taking steps to solve the problem. It helps slow the outflux of refugees. It brings in resources that bolster the population- which may be appropriated by fighters at times, or the effects may be indirect, such as more money in the economy that supports fighters’ families which in turn supports them. And, if aid agencies don’t do the right thing by al Shabbab, it gives them fresh ammunition in the polarizing of its people against the west.

Not increasing aid at all within Somalia is the best possible solution in my mind. The best option within Somalia is to stay out of the diaspora’s way with respect to their remittance flows into Somalia so people can purchase from local markets.

I was talking the other day with a few friends who work in this area. They told me that the real heart-break is that after people have trekked to the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia they are finding that the food isn’t there. In these refugee camps there is a host government who is not impeding the delivery of aid and there is a relatively well-trekked cow-path for the logisticians to follow. Increasing the flows to these areas is a relatively straight-forward process and will ease one of the main problems while staying away from the quagmire.

Next best options are to work through Somali NGOs and increase the flows that they are delivering, continue and maybe increase the air drops (although these have to be terribly costly from a utilitarian point of view, and finally increase more traditional types of delivery within Mogadishu which the TFG / AMISOM troop relatively control.

If you want to give here are some organizations (in the order I would give to them if I had disposable income and wasn’t already fully invested in Somalis):

  • MSF (Doctors without Borders who provide extensive medical care in the refugee camps)
  • Save the Children (who have been working in the camps since the beginning)
  • OXFAM-AUS or OXFAM-UK or OXFAM-US (Who also provides water and other services in the camps)
  • IRC (Who provides a number of services within the refugee camps)

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