Failed government leadership, the lack of accountable partnerships between aid partners and the government, rampant corruption, and psychological dependence on aid have kept Somalis on life support.Failed government leadership, the lack of accountable partnerships between aid partners and the government, rampant corruption, and psychological dependence on aid have kept Somalis on life support. Somalia faces yet another severe drought that is threatening the country with famine if immediate action is not taken. The Gu and Dayr rainy seasons have been short, significantly reducing crop production and devastating livestock.
Flash floods and locust infestations have contributed to crop destruction nationwide. Somalia’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit have reported that seven million people are suffering from food insecurity with another 2.9 million in food crisis. UN agencies estimate that US$1.2 billion is needed to support the affected communities. For the past three decades, haunting images of malnourished children and women have hit the airwaves to tug at the heartstrings of taxpayers in donor countries to increase giving. This is the sad reality; an emergency is declared, followed by a call for billions of dollars in fundraising. Somalia is not alone in enduring this inhumane and degrading approach to supporting fragile low-income countries.
Across the continent, images of starving African children have given birth to a global aid industry that is immoral and unjust. In these unprecedented times, as a global pandemic rages, with severe ramifications for economies throughout the world, many Africans have been awakened by the global outcry for justice and equity led by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It has become a moral, political, and economic imperative to examine the impact of humanitarian interventions in the Global South that are often rooted in neo-colonialism and imperial dominance.
Decades of climate crises and no relief in sight
The humanitarian crisis in Somalia has always been about water, either too much of it or not enough. The country’s economy is largely driven by the 60 per cent of the population that are agro-pastoralists and whose livelihoods have been wiped out by cyclical environmental calamities. Multiple droughts and famine have displaced three million people in the last five decades. In 1973, “Daba-dheer“, the long-tailed drought, hit the northern region of the country, causing severe food shortages. Over 100,000 families were relocated to the Lower Shabelle and Juba regions by the military government of Siad Barre.
In 1991-1992, as the civil war raged, famine conditions led the US government to send military airlifts of food to alleviate the suffering of millions. Despite these efforts, 300,000 people died during that period. In 2011, the world woke up to images of millions of starving Somali children as the country was struck by yet another famine that took the lives of over 260,000 people, half of whom were children under five.
In 2016-17, the country again went through another severe drought that reduced crop production and wiped-out vital livestock. Recent data from various UN agencies shows that up to 50 per cent of Somalia’s population, approximately 7.7 million people, are food insecure. This staggering statistic is a 30 per cent increase from 2020. Although conflict and political instability are major contributors to food insecurity, droughts, floods, and environmental degradation have had a far greater and deadlier impact. As the climate emergency agenda now grabs our attention globally (and rightly so), it must be recalled that Somalia has endured climate disasters for over five decades. And while in past Somalia’s funding partners have responded to the humanitarian crises without addressing the root cause, climate change, we are now seeing a swift shift in language, where “climate solutions” are evoked to align with the billions committed at COP26 to support developing countries to adapt and mitigate climate change.
The humanitarian paradox
Somalia remains the world’s longest-running humanitarian mission, with billions of dollars spent annually, and some fundamental questions must be raised as the climate crisis moves on to the global stage. Why have successive Somali governments been unable to tackle the most serious humanitarian crises? Why are we not realizing modest improvements but instead continue to see a dramatic increase in the humanitarian caseload as more aid is pumped into the system? How long can this state of emergency be sustained? Where is the return on investment for these dollars? Where is the accountability? What reforms are needed in the current structure to bring about real and tangible changes?
The water problem
While Somalis are nomadic agro-pastoralists accustomed to seasonal mobility, the extreme changes in the weather patterns have left most of the landmass uninhabitable. Rainy seasons have become extremely irregular and the rains minimal, while flash floods devastate towns along major rivers. The problem is just as critical along the Jubba River where the poor floodwater infrastructure results in massive crop destruction.
Flooding and drought are not new to Somalia. These natural disasters have plagued the country for decades yet those in charge of Somalia, both the government and its UN partners, have long neglected addressing the central problem of Somalia’s humanitarian crises, water management.
The failure to manage water has devastated the country’s capacity for self-sufficiency. This mismanagement is partly responsible for the deaths of millions of Somalis from starvation and the internal displacement of a fifth of the country’s population. Living conditions in the internally displaced persons camps are by any standards some of the most abhorrent and inhumane. Mogadishu is the epicentre of this internal displacement of populations and hosts close to a million IDPs. Baidoa, Kismayo, and Bosaaso also host large, displaced populations.
Failed government leadership
While natural disasters have caused several problems in Somalia, the real crisis is failed leadership across all levels of government. At the heart of the suffering of the Somali people is dysfunctional leadership. According to the World Bank, over 70 per cent of Somalis earn less than two dollars a day, with an unemployment rate of 80 per cent. Somalis under 35 years old makeup two-thirds of the population, giving the country great potential to accelerate recovery and development with the right leadership in place.
The country’s abundant natural resources including the longest coastline in Africa and large oil reserves remain untapped due to inadequate human resource development and internal conflict. While the exploitation of these untapped natural resources could be a game-changer, the country’s potential will undoubtedly be crushed by conscienceless leadership. Callous political elites have assembled for the sole purpose of chasing power and have shown very little regard for the majority whom they have condemned to a life of misery.
Inept leadership, mismanagement of key portfolios, and the lack of accountability within government also give humanitarian and development partners free reign to do as they see fit. In particular, the last five years have been politically tumultuous. From day one, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) made its priority to go after political foes, stifle free speech, and inhibit freedom of movement, using government and international instruments to attack anyone it deems a threat.
The billion-dollar failure
In 2020, Somalia received US$2.0 billion both in humanitarian and development aid. The absence of a vested and capable government, the lack of accountable partnerships between humanitarian aid partners and the government, rampant corruption by all actors, and psychological dependence on aid have kept Somalis on life support. While increased funds are required to tackle the complex challenges across the country, it must be understood that money alone will not change the conditions on the ground.
The problem with the humanitarian and development aid cycle in Somalia is that assessments of threats are routinely conducted, analyzed, and published, but meaningful steps are rarely taken to pre-empt a crisis. Prevention and proactive measures are not defined early, clearly, or prioritized and resources tend to arrive after disasters have taken hold and families have lost their most basic resilience. Recurrent droughts and floods persist because partners do not invest in real solutions that would address their root causes.
Very conveniently, money earmarked for emergencies can only be used for “aid” in the form of food and non-food items; it cannot be redirected to where it would have a more meaningful impact such as water management and infrastructure. The goal cannot simply be “saving lives” without any measure of the quality of those lives that are saved. There seems to be no feedback loop in this cycle to critique both the continued investment in inadequate strategies, and the recurrence of deadly events that hinder economic development, improved governance, the rise of civil society, and the implementation of effective, long-term solutions.
The humanitarian crisis across the country needs the immediate attention of the government and the international community before it becomes a full-blown famine. The Somali government must mobilize resources and capacities to prevent yet another humanitarian catastrophe. As the election fever builds, the federal government and the federal member states should redirect the millions allotted for vote-buying and election rigging to the hundreds of thousands of families that have lost the means to support themselves.
Fundamentally, international partners and the aid infrastructure make room for swift reforms that shift programming power to local actors and governments. Investment in water infrastructure to support adequate water resources is the only way out of Somalia’s humanitarian conundrum. Given that nearly all the rural livelihoods are agro-pastoral, investment in robust water infrastructure is critically needed to build resilient, sustainable communities.
Government leadership must prioritize saving millions from starvation, end the political standoff, and hold timely and credible elections. The international community and those who bankroll Somalia’s political elite have a moral and practical obligation to ensure that election stagnation ends and that credible election outcomes are obtained. By failing to do so, Somalia’s partners will have contributed to the imminent demise of the Third Republic and to allowing the famine that now threatens the country to take hold.