Political Stalemate in the Time of Famine



Just when the food crisis in south-central Somalia has deteriorated to famine level, rebel group Al-Shabab which controls the area has decided to maintain the ban on food aid and operations of foreign aid groups. The group denied that there is a famine in the country and said that the United Nations is merely promoting propaganda.

Most foreign development agencies have ceased operations in southern Somalia in 2009 following deadly attacks against aid workers as well as reported extortion and threats from Al-Shabab. Rebels accused aid groups of having a political agenda. The banned agencies include the World Food Program, UN Development Program and other UN agencies, Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Care, World Vision, Mercy Corps, Somali Red Crescent Society and International Medical Corps among others.

The rebels also blamed the WFP in particular for undermining local markets, saying that food aid is preventing local farmers from getting a good price on their products. They also said that the food being distributed is already expired and has made people sick. Al-Shabab has been engaged in armed conflict against the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and African Union forces. The United States government has tagged it as a terrorist organization and its senior leadership is said to have links to al-Qaeda.

Caught in the middle of the battle for ideology and territorial power are the Somali people. Many have been displaced from their homes and were living in makeshift camps. The onset of severe drought made life worse as harvests dwindled and livestock died off. Surviving animals were in poor condition and fetched low prices in the market while food prices are increasing. Deprived of their livelihood and with no means to procure food, Somalis are forced to walk for hundreds of kilometers just to get to the refugee camps.

Despite the ban, agencies like the WFP and the Somali Red Crescent are still determined to continue providing humanitarian assistance in the country. The WFP plans to airlift food into Mogadishu while the Somali Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross will open new therapeutic feeding centers for malnourished children in southern Somalia. The security threats however, of working in the rebel-controlled areas endangers the stability and could limit the effectiveness and reach of these activities.

Amidst the massive displacement and starvation, yet another tragedy is the dirty politics that prevents help from reaching those who need it most. Somalis have long endured the armed conflict and political instability in their land. Now that they have literally nothing to eat, their food supply is still being subjected to political power play. While power players are busy arguing whether there’s famine or not, helpless children are wasting away, more than 1,000 people are arriving daily in refugee camps, and those who can’t sustain the long walk are dying by the roadside. There goes the irony: as food becomes more expensive, human life is still cheap enough to be mere collateral damage in the struggle for political control.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0202/Kate Holt, Somalia, 2011. Boys queue to receive food at a distribution point organized by the World Food Programme (WFP), near the port in Mogadishu, the capital.

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