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Political failures behind Horn of Africa crisis

“One is entitled to ask why, after all the development and emergency aid spent on Ethiopia, there is a food crisis there every time there is a drought?”, asks the author Thomas Keneally in his CNN column. As thousands of innocent people lose their lives to yet another famine in the Horn of Africa, and aid agencies scramble to stem the tide of human suffering in burgeoning refugee camps, his question deserves to be carefully considered.

Since headlines first broke about food shortages in Somalia, much criticism has focused on the Al-Shabaab militia, which has been widely condemned for blocking supplies of aid to those who needed it most. The Islamist group that controls much of Southern Somalia – the epicenter of the crisis – cannot be held solely responsible for the situation, however. Humanitarian organizations such as Tearfund working in the region have pointed out that the Famine Early Warnings Systems Networks warned of the impending tragedy as early as last September, but both donor countries and the institutions of international governance were slow to respond.

When on July 20 the UN declared a full-scale famine had taken hold – the first time it has taken this step in 30 years – it was already too late for many thousands of desperate people making their way to emergency feeding centers in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

Upon visiting the Somali capital Mogadishu earlier this month, the UK’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell warned that the international community’s response had been “dangerously inadequate”. Even African countries have appeared reticent in the face of the unfolding drama, with only four of the continent’s 54 heads of state turning out to a fundraising summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last week.

By mid-August $1.4 billion had been pledged to support the humanitarian effort, leaving a shortfall of over $1 billion on the amount required by the UN. Meanwhile, upwards of 12 million people are facing food shortages, with an estimated 2.3 million children thought to be acutely malnourished. Some 29,000 Somali children under the age of five have already died of starvation, with 170,000 more at risk of death. Diseases like measles and diarrhea tear through squalid refugee camps struggling to cope with the huge influx of exhausted, hungry people. The World Health Organization has warned that mass population movements brought on by the crisis have served to exacerbate the cholera epidemic.

Against the backdrop of such tragedy, it is crucial that those in positions of power act not only to stop and reverse the spreading crisis, but effectively tackle its root causes  to ensure it is not repeated in the future. While it may by tempting to blame the situation on what is admittedly the region’s worst drought in decades, the depressingly familiar images of human suffering that herald its arrival are the result of political decisions that have combined to violate the full gamut of economic and social rights.

The international community’s reluctance to channel resources into a region controlled by an organization the US State Department regards as terrorist has no doubt contributed to the problem, but such geopolitical considerations cannot be used to justify the violation of people’s most fundamental rights.

At an emergency meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization on August 18, experts reaffirmed the importance of developing sustainable livelihoods, along with early warning mechanisms, and both adaptation and mitigation policies, in order to enable communities in the Horn of Africa to cope with future climate shocks. “What the world is seeing now is the result of three decades of underinvestment,” said FAO President Jacques Diouf. “Unless these plans are carried out, famine will return to shame the international community.”

The global economic crisis has meanwhile been cited as one reason for governmental apathy in the face of the famine. Commitments made in recent weeks - as television images of starving children translated in growing public pressure - prove that resources can be mobilized when the political will is there, however. It is also worth remembering that, had a little more action been forthcoming when the warnings of an impending food crisis began circulating late last year, the price paid, both in terms of human lives and aid dollars, would have been a great deal lower.

With these facts in mind, Thomas Keneally might be forgiven for wondering “will there be fewer refugees, walking fewer miles?”, when the next drought comes along somewhere down the line.  “Is this a failure of rain?,” asks the Schindler’s Ark author, “or a failure of government?”.