Crisis in East Africa: Famine, Displacement and Conflict

While much of the world has focused on the economic calamity in the United States and Europe in recent weeks, the Horn of Africa currently faces perhaps an even more urgent crisis. According to United Nations (UN) officials, over 11 million people desperately need food assistance due to East Africa’s worst drought in over sixty years. The most heavily affected country has undoubtedly been Somalia, particularly in the regions of southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle. On July 20, the UN officially declared a famine in these two regions, marking the first UN recognition of famine in over thirty years. With over 3.7 million Somalis suffering from food insecurity, UN officials have called it the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The extreme bout of starvation in Somalia precipitated an additional refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa. Somalis who seek humanitarian aid have migrated to bordering Ethiopia and Kenya. Particularly, the Kenyan refugee camp of Dadaab – which was established twenty years ago and designed to hold only 90,000 people – has housed tens of thousands of refugee in recent weeks, bringing its total number of inhabitants up to 380,000. These extremely high levels of resettlement will become unsustainable without further assistance from the international community. Refugee camps like the Dadaab rely on both donations from foreign governments and relief efforts from humanitarian aid organizations to continue to provide food, water and shelter to famine-stricken countries. Recently, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has recently called for “massive support” from the international community, which the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs approximates will need to be around $2.5 billion. Shortly after this call for aid the White House announced that it will contribute an additional $105 million, bringing the total amount of humanitarian aid for East Africa up to $565 million.

Despite the work of humanitarian aid organizations, such as UNICEF, the Red Cross and the World Food Programme (WFP), Somali insurgents have obstructed these relief efforts and, therefore, exacerbated the crisis. Discussing the complexity of relief services in Somalia, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran explains, “Operations in Somalia are among the highest risk in the world. WFP lost 14 relief workers there since 2008.” The Members of the al-Shabaab Islamist rebel group have not only denied that the famine exists but, moreover, they have tried to prevent aid organizations from entering the country to administer relief. Though the militant group officially lifted its ban on aid agencies on July 5, group members have continued to kidnap, terrorize and kill aid workers in an attempt to force their departure. Johnnie Carson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, has discussed the impact of al-Shabaab, asserting, “Al-Shabaab’s activities have clearly made the situation much worse. We call on all of those in south-central Somalia who have it within their authority to allow refugee groups and organizations to operate there to do so.” In response, African Union (AU) peacekeepers have launched a counterattack against al-Shabaab to protect relief workers. Though discussions with the group have seemed to progress recently, their opposition to relief efforts continues to pose a serious threat to crucial food, water and emergency medical treatment for all suffering East Africans. As the situation worsens, governments and NGOs must work together to overcome insurgent obstacles and coordinate more effective relief efforts, thereby preventing the further development of an already tragic crisis.

Learn more about the famine in Somalia from this Economist essay.

For information on international aid organizations currently working in East Africa and how you can help, please click here.

By Alex LePore, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern