The over-simplified narrative of the Somali famine.

The recent attention afforded to the Somali famine has mostly infuriated me. It’s not because I don’t care about those who are starving, quite the contrary; it’s more that I am angered with the way that the crisis is being painted in the media. For example:

The way it is so constantly referred to as a “natural disaster”, the result of drought or climate change, or some other ecological problem, as opposed to being primarily a political or socio-economic problem.

The way access to markets, finances, other entitlements and freedom of movement seem to have no bearing on the recent crisis in the slightest, as if at least one third (if not much more) of all food produced worldwide isn’t wasted after production each year and as if there isn’t more than enough food on this planet for every human being to avoid malnutrition.

The way the popular narrative degrades the dignity of those who are suffering, as if the journalists flocking to the refugee camps by the butt-load to snap a shot of the most pathetic-looking, swollen-bellied child, and trying to get the most convenient narratives from the chosen few “poster” women of the famine isn’t incredibly exploitative of their situation. As if the small children who are filmed or captured on camera have a real choice in whether they are branded across the news in the wider world and can easily say no to their own exploitation. As if repeatedly questioning someone in a refugee camp who has just trekked hundreds of miles, under terrible conditions, about their experiences of rape and violence and hardships experienced in their home country in front of their traumatized children, isn’t re-traumatizing for all of them.

The way so many comments on the crisis in the newspapers and forums seem to point directly to a “population problem”, as if the problem of starvation here was simply a Malthusian problem of Somali women having too many babies. As if a typical family of three in North America or Europe doesn’t use at least double the amount of food a Somali family of eight does. As if the mortality rate in the average Somali family of eight will allow all of that family to actually make it to adulthood, old age or to survive pregnancy, war or illness. As if it is so easy to ignore aspects of history that clearly demonstrate that population isn’t the determining factor in famine, for example the situation in the most populous country, India, where between 1800 and 1947 close to 38 million people died from a series of famines when the population level was less than 350 million, and that since that time, when the population has more than tripled now exceeding 1.21 billion people, the amount of deaths from famine has been comparatively non-existent.

The way the world seems to think that handouts are somehow magically going to solve this problem, as if the vast majority of those who are currently starving aren’t still going to starve to death or live with malnutrition for years to come, despite the money that’s now being collected. As if humanitarian or development aid weren’t incredibly problematic to begin with. As if the dumping of surplus grain in the form of “food aid” from donor countries isn’t actually being done to keep their own domestic grain prices low; and as if it is really about feeding the poor and isn’t essentially increasing the problems in the receiving countries instead of actually helping them; undercutting the local farmers, lowering the prices they receive for their own produced goods and discouraging the real development of a local market.  As if these donor countries weren’t spending numerous times more for their shipping costs, dumping these surpluses, than they are spending in agricultural or production assistance to these recipient countries.

The way the dialogue seems to focus only on the aspect of starvation, as if long term malnutrition, which the majority of those now starving have likely faced for years and will likely face for years to come, wasn’t debilitating and detrimental to the development of those who face it. As if those who are now at risk aren’t mostly the same people who have suffered through the last series of droughts and who have been kept barely alive by insufficient feeding programmes for years.

The way many articles have entirely ignored the aspect of war in the country and the lack of an actual functioning government who controls anything more than a few suburb areas in Mogadishu and who continually receives millions in aid with little to no accountability. That the contributions of aid to Somalia have been primarily in emergency humanitarian assistance and not directed in any significant way into long term projects or agricultural projects and that even if they were, that appeals for aid to the country have come up short for many, many years, instead going to more “popular” crises that attract more donors.

The way the crisis is painted as affecting the entire country and the vast majority of Somalis, rather than being restricted to certain regions only. As if the famine were raging in the same manner in the Ethiopian Highlands, Somaliland, Puntland, or the north eastern parts of the country as it is in the southern areas. As if the rains haven’t also failed in other parts Somalia, and parts of both Kenya and Ethiopia, and yet these regions, for some seemingly unknown reason, aren’t facing the same severity of a crisis as others.

The way the Ogaden region in the Ethiopian Lowlands, that is almost entirely populated by Somalis, is likely suffering or has been suffering for some time now in the same manner or worse than those in Somalia, though is almost entirely ignored, as if it hasn’t been fenced off and closed to outsiders for years, as if the population here were non-existent.

The way most neglect to mention the logistics of how this food aid will actually be delivered in an area that has seen the death of countless aid workers in the last several years, as if the World Food Program hasn’t previously stated that the “food supply line to Somalia is effectively broken”. As if the al-Shabaab group who is in control of much of the affected area doesn’t distrust those delivering the aid, regarding them as foreign “spies”.

The way everyone seems to be talking as if this crisis were new, as if the world wasn’t alerted to the fact that mass starvation would be likely in this area for quite some time, and how the UN itself warned in 2008 that one in six were at serious risk of starvation. The way reporters constantly refer to the “swift action” of international organizations to react to the crisis, even though, in reality, most assistance will come too little, too late to actually help most of those who are starving. As if aid agencies and governments haven’t known for almost a year now that the food would run out by now; that they failed to make a real appeal to the public until only after people begin to die in large numbers, even though it will take months for any of the aid currently being collected to actually reach these populations, if they ever even do. As if the US hadn’t severely restricted the UN’s ability to deliver food in Somalia over the past few years, by politicizing the situation and imposing strict conditions, even going so far as to suspend and hold millions of dollars in food aid and is only now, rather hypocritically, calling upon a need to “solve” the problem only after it is really too late.

The way the media ignores how large land lease “land grabs” by foreign governments and companies for the creation of export crops have further exacerbated this problem. As if governments and developing banks encouraging the population to participate in the market economy by buying grain and growing cash crops instead of growing self-sustaining crops didn’t massively deter people from storing excess grain for potentially bad years and make them more vulnerable to rising grain prices. As if the majority of plans for the limited agricultural development being done haven’t stressed the importance of the new “Green Revolution” that is almost completely unaffordable to the poorest of the poor who are most likely to starve, neglecting more self-sustaining agricultural techniques that could actually help those who most need it.

The way the huge spike in global food prices seems to be non-existent to the problem, as if rising grain prices aren’t a big part of the reason people are starving. As if the increasing diversion of grain to the production of biofuels and other non-feed uses and export restrictions weren’t a factor in this crisis.

The way most ignore the fact that the Kenyan government is largely refusing to allow people to cross into northern Kenya and has kept a nearly completely prepared refugee camp able to accommodate almost 40, 000 people empty to deter others from flooding into the country. As if the governments of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia (what little of it there is), haven’t been marginalizing and discriminating against pastoralists in the region for years, now depicted as “archaic” or “outmoded”, or haven’t been promoting only large-scale farming projects, the expansion of national parks, game reserves and conservation, blocking access to traditional routes to pasture land.

The way the media largely depicts the typical “whites in shining armour” tripe, as if westerners are the only ones capable of “solving” the problems in Somalia.  As if Somalis are perpetual victims and as if there weren’t Somalis and members of the Somali diaspora making a tremendous effort to lessen this crisis themselves.

So what is to be done? Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know what to suggest that will actually make any real difference here. But I do know that this crisis is not going to be solved by simple increases in aid or handouts, as most seem to be calling for. I know that continually painting the crisis in limited terms is only going to lead people to put in place the same “band-aid solutions” for years to come and will only ensure that this type of crisis will happen again and again. If anyone has any positive and concrete suggestions, I’d be very interested to hear them, but personally, I’m at a loss.

I’m sure I’ve missed many other factors with my own fairly simple narrative, and encourage others who have more experience in the area to fill in any significant factors I have missed.

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