Aid agencies are frustrated by many crippling situations: the slow response of Western governments, local governments and terrorist groups blocking access, terrorist and bandit attacks, and anti-terrorism laws that restrict who the aid groups can deal with.
Famine stops at the Somali border. I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have. Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.
By now everyone has seen the pictures. They speak of humanity at its furthest extreme -- skeletal children, dying mothers, fly-blown wounds on feet that have walked for days. In terms of the desperation of the situation, the pictures speak for themselves.
The transformation that these images, broadcast on the nightly news, have had on the Dadaab refugee camp is noticeable. A situation that has been worsening for several years has almost overnight been recognised for the humanitarian crisis it is: the most serious such crisis currently facing the planet. The recognition is welcome, but unless it is matched by action it is meaningless.
Four weeks ago I was having a beer with some BBC journalists in the UNHCR compound in Dadaab. They were here shooting a story on a particular ethnic group from southern Ethiopia; they knew almost nothing about the food crisis and when I tried to explain how serious it was to them they were genuinely surprised. The next day they told me they had been asked by the London office to shoot something for the news while they were here -- they weren’t set up for the quick turnaround and needed advice about edit facilities in Nairobi. That week they were the only media in the camp.
Within days everything changed. Journalists have been pouring into Dadaab in almost as steady a stream as the refugees. Relief agencies have been coming too. Money and resources -- though still nowhere near enough -- have started to become available where they are needed most.
Recently I’ve been seeing Dadaab described as the "ground zero" of the food crisis. This simply isn’t the case. As bad as things are in Dadaab, and they are very bad indeed, this is not the epicentre of the famine -- it’s the epicentre of the relief effort. This is very important to keep in mind. The images you’re seeing on the news are shocking, horrific even, but they are of the people who have made it to safety. The tens of thousands who have made the journey here in the past few months are not the ones who are worst off. The people worst off are already dead.
Latest figures put the number of people at risk of starvation in the Horn of Africa at 12 million. While the drought enforces suffering as far away as Eritrea and Uganda, the most affected areas are so far in southern Somalia and Ethiopia, including the disputed Ogaden region. It is no coincidence that the worst-hit areas are also the most insecure. If the role of man-made climate change in the drought is still in dispute, then the fact it is human folly that has turned this drought into a famine is less contested.
The most heinous example of politics exacerbating natural disaster has been the continued policy of al Shabaab in blocking food supplies and relief efforts in the regions of southern Somalia under their control. Al Shabaab (which translates as "the youth") is a militant Islamic group that may be reasonably compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a country with central government to speak of al Shabaab control huge regions in rule that is chaotic and brutal.
Exactly who is doing what to whom is hard to pin down in Somalia’s power vacuum, but new arrivals to Dadaab that I have spoken with also report al Shabaab preventing people from fleeing the region. Refugees tell stories of r-pe, mutilation with bayonets and other brutalities committed at the hands of the militants. It's likely much of this violence is as much banditry born out of chaos as it is an organised campaign. It’s hard to know.
Watching Somali Independence Day celebrations in Dadaab a few weeks ago was a strange feeling. Across the camp, refugees draped themselves in the blue and white flag of a country with no government and no future and danced wildly to sugary Somali pop music. "They really do love their country," a colleague of mine remarked in disbelief. It is a hard country to love.
In Dadaab itself the problems are far more complicated than a simple lack of food. Despite the huge influx the World Food Program and other responsible agencies have so far managed to keep the camp supplied with basic staples. Emergency funds currently being made available should ensure this remains the case. The real problem in the camps at least is access, registration and organisation.
In order to fully access the camps' facilities, a prospective refugee must register, have fingerprints taken and so forth. No one is disputing the necessity of this process -- Kenya is home to more than half a million refugees and there is an obvious need to know who is who. But the time it takes is agonising. The delay can be weeks. It is this bottleneck that creates the biggest hardship in Dadaab rather than any inherent shortage.
Another huge problem is simply lack of information. When people first arrive at Dadaab, often after weeks walking through the desert carrying their children and all they they own, they think they have reached a sanctuary. But often the tents and humpies the new arrivals take to be the haven they have heard about may be kilometres from the organised sections of the camp. Having arrived on the outskirts it is often days before new arrivals make their way to the initial registration centre, find the all-important tap-stands or hear about the emergency health services on offer. For many -- too many -- this simple delay can be fatal.
It is no small thing that the world has started to pay attention to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. Say what you will about "starvation p-rn" or media exploitation -- the fact is that the money raised in these few weeks will save lives. Potentially millions of lives.
Inevitably attention will wander. The story will not change -- only get worse -- and the media will tire of it. But with or without the cameras, children will still starve to death.
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