(Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Africa in Transition, a blog maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations. Click the picture below to view a bigger version.)
[Yesterday]’s New York Times devotes two-thirds of its front page above the fold to a horrific picture in color of a malnourished Somali child in a Mogadishu hospital. It caps a detailed and thoughtful report by Jeffrey Gettleman titled “Somalis Waste Away as Insurgents Block Escape from Famine.”The New York Times‘ lead story continued to be the U.S. debt-ceiling crisis and the House vote [on Monday] to raise the debt ceiling. But the Somalia story visually dominates the paper today. Now that the debt ceiling drama is winding down, I suspect U.S. public attention, rightfully prodded by humanitarian agencies, will focus on the famine.
And, in effect, Al Shabab bears the most responsibility for the famine. The terrorist group continues to block Western aid workers during a drought that has displaced close to two million people, or a quarter of Somalia’s entire population. A few years ago, Shabab dismantled a child vaccination campaign, claiming it was a Western plot; that program could have saved many children who have since succumbed to measles. Gettleman also reports that Shabab is preventing starving people from fleeing the areas that it controls.
Even at its best, food security in the Horn is precarious and the region’s acute drought certainly kicked-off the Somali famine. Elsewhere in the Horn, the food security issues equal that of Somalia. Neighboring Kenya faces a dire humanitarian situation in its northern regions, leading to criticism regarding how the government has handled the crisis. The UN estimates that more than 12 million in the region require assistance, and the Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos is seeking much greater international assistance. But, where insurgents do not impede disaster relief, no outright famine exists. Hence, Shabab bears responsibility for much of the Somali humanitarian disaster.