When We Don't Learn From Our Failures: Famine in Somalia

Somalia holds the unfortunate record of being the longest running failed state, going on twenty years without an established government. With the fall of President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, the country has yet to stabilize and rebuild. This is in large part due to the international community’s lack of follow through on humanitarian assistance and statebuilding commitments to Somalia. What we saw in the early nineties was the United Nations’ attempt to address humanitarian and human rights concerns in the region through UNITAF and UNISOM 1 and 2, but ultimately failing due to lack of support and continued commitment from UN member states. The ramifications of these failures have been immense.

Among the many detriments to the country, the lack of an established government has allowed al-Shabab, a terrorist organization, to take over most of the southern region. In addition to violence directed at civilians, this group is also well known for its attacks on humanitarian workers and its penchant for stealing humanitarian aid. Further, with no real government to speak of, the citizens are left with very few resources and options as food becomes scarce during times of drought. This lack of infrastructure has exacerbated the effects of the drought, and, as in 1992, has lead to the country’s current devastating famine.

Although I was only ten years-old at the time, I remember vividly the pictures and news reports of the starving children in Somalia. Recently, I’ve been feeling a sense of déjà vu, as these same pictures float across my computer screen. The difference being that these pictures and news reports are fewer and far between. Especially with the recent movement of rebels in Libya and Hurricane Irene in the United States, Somalia has all but fallen from the spotlight. This only serves to deepen my fear that not only is the horrific famine in Somalia repeating itself, but we are also repeating our half-assed attempt at humanitarian assistance and statebuilding in the country.

Somalia stands as a painful example of what happens when the international community does not live up to its commitments; particularly the incredibly important and often ignored need for statebuilding. Humanitarian assistance only goes so far when there is no one there to pick up the baton and work toward rebuilding the nation. The failure of prior UN missions was directly related to a lack of capacity and support for their expansive mandates. It is a great step in the right direction to establish a mandate, but UN member states need to be willing to step up and take part in implementing these initiatives. There have been continued calls throughout the years for a broader UN presence in Somalia, with little or no backing from the international community. The UN often finds itself in difficult situations, which even under the best circumstances can be near impossible to overcome. Without the true support of member states, countries such as Somalia do not stand a chance.

So, while the United States is spending $698 billion on its military each year fighting unwanted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the number of civilians in need of food aid in Somalia is quickly approaching 2.8 million. As we spend our afternoons thanking our lucky stars that Irene was reasonably gentle, over 1 million Somali children are at risk of dying from malnutrition. Perhaps it is time the international community, the media, and we as citizens shift our focus. Let us learn from the mistakes we made in the nineties and not let the children of Somalia pay for our failures.

Follow Corrie on Twitter - @corrie_hulse

Humanitarian Aid, Somalia, United Nations