As is customary with the New Year, it’s time to reflect upon Africa’s socio-economic development in 2011. Hands down, the top three items that would behoove inclusion are the East African famine, gender inequalities, and African democracy. I will explore these three topics during the first quarter of 2012.
By early August 2011, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization noted the East African famine as the worst in 60 years, devastating parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya with 12.4 million people at risk from hunger. The start of 2012 finds Africa at a pivotal point where it can either continue an unchanged path of famine, poverty, and political strife, or usher in a new year of change. The United Nations 2015 Millennium Development Goal to halve the number of famine victims is fast approaching. With the continuing East African famine, the 2015 MDG goal seems beyond unattainable. The mark no longer seems relevant.
I had the opportunity to speak with experts in the East African famine in December at an NYU Wagner student-sponsored event titled “East Africa Famine: Discussion and Benefit Dinner.” The juxtaposition of famine and dinner was poignant, especially during the holiday season. During the event, I learned that the famine isn’t even the worst of the problems facing the region.
The socio-economic development and gender implications of famine are far worse—sexual slavery, “selective feeding” gender bias practices, broken family structures, and land tenure insecurity. Liz Pender, a technical advisor with the International Rescue Committee on Women’s Protection and Empowerment, noted the 80 percent female population in refugee camps and an overwhelming majority of male children under the age of five in camps. This suggests that male children are given the gender-biased preference to survive. When faced with the choice to save a male or female child, more often than not girls are malnourished, sold into sex slavery, or left to die.
What causes famine? Drought, water shortages, unsustainable methods of water capture, and distribution. Hopefully, a new year will bring East Africa a long overdue rainy season in March and April. Famine is bigger than water.
Consider the natural resource of charcoal. The charcoal trade in Somalia has directly led to an increase in climate change and deforestation. This deforestation is detrimental to Somali lands, which are already suffering from four years without regular rain. Self-subsistence farmers have malnourished livestock, arid land with low-no crop yield, and tenuous land tenure systems. Families break up as men stay at the homestead and a steady stream of displaced women with children migrate to over-crowded refugee camps, such as Ethiopia’s Dolo Ado camp and Kenya’s Dadaab Camp, as high as 1,300 people a day. Dadaab refugee camp opened in 1991 with a capacity of 90,000, and now 20 years later it has a population of nearly half a million refugees (approximately 98 percent Somali). Is charcoal’s impact on the East African famine just another example of Africa’s natural resource curse?
Some argue that political control is the cause for the famine, and point fingers at the militant group Al-Shabab. Somalia has not had a strong central government for over twenty years. Al-Shabab has a strong hold in Southern Somalia, and has blocked and threatened international aid workers and donor agencies from intervening in the famine affected areas. Their discontent with the international donor agencies is nothing new. Does Al-Shabab have a point: is international donor aid and influence the cause for tension in the region?
What role should the international donor agencies play? David Winder, CEO of WaterAid America, discusses the pressing need for more public awareness on water issues in an address to the UN International Water titled, The Global Water Crisis. Winder argues, in sub-Saharan Africa alone there is an estimated annual funding shortfall of around US $11.4 billion, as only 30 percent of water and sanitation aid in fact goes to the least developed countries. Winder goes on to include the importance of civil society organizations in decision-making in order to generate bottom up demand for change and to hold governments to account for public investment in water and sanitation.
What happens when the decision is that international donor community isn’t welcomed? Even Somalia Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohammed Ali blames the donor agencies, as he told UK’s The Daily Telegraph: “I don’t believe there’s a famine in Mogadishu. Absolutely no, You know the aid agencies became an entrenched interest group and they say all kind of things that they want to say.”
As Al-Shabab’s grip steadies over the 20-year weakened Somali government, the East African regional presence has to step up. Kenya, with Ethiopia’s support, has taken leadership in the regional response to the crisis. It has taken the humanitarian brunt with overcrowded refugee camps. Kenyan forces have been operating in Somalia since October 2011, and have started 2012 leading air strikes to break the spine of Al-Shabab.
The socio-economic implications inherited from the 2011 East African famine will be addressed when the desire to alleviate a human crisis outweighs the power struggles from militant organizations, international aid agencies and regional unification. East Africa must stick with a 2012 New Years resolution that recognizes access to safe and clean drinking water as a human right and quality of life benchmark, much more than a political tactic or development goal—an imperative.