Famine in Somalia. How to Help. Or Not.

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Famine in Somalia. How to Help. Or Not.

There is a drought in Somalia, growing into famine proportions. Something needs to be done. So, good people are doing something. And I sit here, writing, working, going to the beach, hiding Easter eggs, not really doing anything specifically related to the famine. And, I sit here with a lot of questions about what is being done. It is so hard to articulate them because I really, truly believe the people doing these things are topnotch people. As in, people with deep empathy and compassion, people who love with abandon, who take risks to serve, people who are not after fame or fortune or glory. I don’t want to hurt feelings or to disparage. But I do feel the need to raise some issues, to ask some questions.

And let me just start by saying Somalis are so much more than starving children and people covered in flies. Please. Seriously. Be wise about what images you share.

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Research has proven unequivocally that famine is caused by authoritarian regimes, by harmful politics and policies, by corrupt governments, by tyrannical rulers, by war. The root cause of famine is not the lack of rain or a failed growing season. Changing weather patterns contribute to drought but famine, starvation on a mass scale, is a different beast.

Here is an important article about the factors underlying Somalia’s current crisis, by Dr. Mohamud Mohamed Ahmed (Buyow). I wrote to Dr. Mohamud and in his response he stressed the importance of working with local organizations and local authority structures for long term solutions. He wrote, “…short projects and inappropriate responses will not be a long lasting solution to the recurrent droughts. The best way to address the root causes of the famine is  settling with the needy people and identifying the immediate needs and longterm support needs and provide the right intervention that suits the needs of the target people through working with relevant  authorities in that respective area rather than copying projects from other countries  and implementing  them regardless of the outcome and impact.”

He spoke about the historically strong agriculture, livestock, fishery, and business realities in Somalia and that the people need help strengthening those sectors, not just food aid, in order to end long term dependence on outside sources.

The cure for a famine is not a rain shower.

The cure for famine is not to provide meals.

I have seen both scenarios presented on social media as viable solutions.

One campaign promotes their efforts to ‘stop the famine’ by providing millions of meals, boxed in the US and shipped to Somalia. This will not stop the famine. This will give people food for a while. It will effectively delay their starvation, it will not stop it. And, based on history and current threats coming from al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is unlikely that all the meals will actually feed the hungry. So, if you must box meals, at least do so knowing that you are not ending a famine and that you might be feeding a terrorist. Truth in advertising seems important here.

Also, rain…

Rain in a land denuded of forests and trees, either due to systematic stripping or because people, desperate for food and shelter because of conflict and poverty, have been forced to cut their own trees down, can be catastrophic. Floods. Cholera. Typhoid. Malaria. Dengue fever. Diseases which, were they diseases that plagued western countries, might have had vaccinations or effective medicines developed to fight them by now. These diseases descend on the dry land and on weakened people with a vengeance when there is a little rain. And a bit of rain won’t make the agricultural industry boom again. Especially not when that industry has been destroyed by bad management and violence.

Yes, rain is needed so that crops can begin to grow again. But if all the farmers are gathered in feeding centers and it rains for a while one afternoon, that does not mean corn will spring from the ground around them and the people will now be satiated. A rain shower is not going to end a famine.

Some of the bad management and bad control that are contributing to this famine are, in fact, remnants of previous famine relief efforts. Western nations, goodhearted people, bring in food and seed and grain. This undermines what the local economy and farmers had been able to provide, cuts prices, leaves farms fallow, pulls people away from working the land and into feeding centers. Once they land there, it is almost impossible to return to a farm. It may be taken over by a neighbor or by a warlord. The ground might be destroyed. The herd animals die so a nomadic family has nothing to go back to. They are stuck. Perpetually.

So sure, box up your meal and stop the famine.

Sure, pray for rain and stop the famine.

What will you do tomorrow?

And the next day?

And the next day?

What will you do when the millions of boxed up meals ends? When another famine strikes because the underlying causes have not been addressed?

You’ll develop compassion fatigue.

Okay, pack the box of food. And then go to Somalia, make sure a hungry person eats it, make sure that hungry person is repatriated, along with their entire community, to their agricultural region or to their flocks (which have died so must be donated), so that they can become self-sustaining again, they way they once were. Make sure that person doesn’t spend the rest of their life dependent on meals that you box up in the US. Make sure gangs don’t rob, rape, or kill the people. Make sure violence doesn’t force them to abandon their land in the future. Make sure just and good governance is instituted.

People may have walked hundreds of kilometers to get to the food. Now what? They are effectively stuck in the feeding camp until you, who brought them there with your meal, help them go home. Will you do that? Will you stay involved and engaged for that long? Will you fund organizations who will do those things?

Sorry to say, but in the case of the outsider, the answer is most likely no. No, you will not stick it out for decades, a commitment some compare to a marriage. That long, that much effort. Nope. You will move on to the next crisis or to the next Netflix show.

Who will stay?

Somalis.

Somalis in Somalia and Somalis in the diaspora around the world, most whom still have relatives living in Somalia. These are the people who have proven track records of caring for Somalia. Remittances from abroad make up almost a quarter of Somalia’s GDP. Money transfer is keeping people from starving, is helping them set up small businesses or reestablish farms. Somalis who care about good governance and sustainable food security need to be supported.

Somalis who know the culture, region, and people intimately. There are Somalis leading aid work. Get behind them, support them.

This means you might not get your face on a brochure. You might not get a great selfie opportunity. You might not get the praise for risking your life to go to Somalia to see what people are already telling you, if you would just believe them. You might not get the glory of praying for rain and seeing it fall and tweeting about it.

But you might be able to make a difference, just without your left hand knowing what your right hand is doing.

If you are willing to support Somalis helping Somalia, then here are some ways you can get involved.

*There are loads of Go Fund me campaigns being run by Somalis: Somalia Famine Relief, they are partnering with the American Refugee Committee and the International Refugee Committee. And Somalia Famine Relief 2017, run by a group of Somali youth in Minneapolis (go Minnesota!), they are partnering with a Somali-run NGO Read Horn of Africa.

*Technology and social media are both playing large parts in responding to this crisis. Here is how some Somalis are using both to help.

*Abaaraha has developed a crisis mapping system to help aid providers see the big picture and know where there are urgent needs.

*If you have Somalis in your community, talk to their community leaders. Maybe at a mosque, maybe restaurant owners or shopkeepers. Find out what they are doing and ask how you can participate. I know Minneapolis restaurants recently had a Dine Out for Somalia evening, with the goal of raising $150,000 for famine relief. The list included almost 50 restaurants, most of them Somali, Horn of Africa, or Arab cuisine. You can still donate: Dine Out for Somalia.

What if there weren’t only Somali restaurants participating? What if they weren’t primarily Somali diners? Do you, non-Somali American, really need to start your own organization, project, or fund? Get behind what Somalis are already doing, join with them. I suspect you’ll find your donation of time, resources, or money will go further and you’ll be able to see more long-term impact both in your own life and in the lives of people you hope to serve.

*There are so many Somalis helping Somalis, unrelated to famine relief. But all development is positive and can move the entire region in the right direction. Saada Moumin is one such woman, with her school for low-income and special needs children in Djibouti.

*And, sure, I’ll encourage you to pray for Somalia. But keep in mind that you are not the only one praying. Millions of Somalis are praying, both in Somalia and in the diaspora. There are Somali Muslims praying and Christians who care about Somalis praying and I even know some Buddhist Somalis who pray. Don’t fool yourself that when God provides an answer to prayer, it was solely your powerful and effective righteousness that brought it. You are not standing alone in your hope and faith. You are not the hero.

*Read When Helping Hurts. Seriously. If you haven’t read this yet, read it now.

Now, with humility and generosity and critical thoughtfulness, go out and try to do something wise and good.

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4 Comments

  1. David B Swartz May 10, 2017 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    A number of things –

    1.) You are a good writer and one that I find, more than enjoyable, edifying to read.

    2.) This is a noticeably longer post than you often write indicating that you have considerable steam in your boiler over this. That this is so knowledgeable and not a rant is evidence of #1.

    3.) Real suffering of any kind is always more complex and nuanced than it appears, isn’t it? Much of what you say here can be applied can be applied to many crisis situations. I really appreciate your aiming for real impact over knee jerk responses aiming for the quick fix. This is so well said I am glad to share it.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones May 10, 2017 at 1:09 pm - Reply

      Thanks, David. You’re right! You can ‘read’ me well. My husband and I talked so much about this, or rather I talked so much AT him about this, he said, “You better write about it.” Thank you for sharing it, too.

  2. Reed Gardner June 1, 2017 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    Rachel, are you familiar with the book “White Man’s Burden” by William Easterly? This post reminds me a lot of that book, particularly your point about government and policies. How bad ones create problems like famine them and how good governance and policies can help fix them, If you haven’t read it you should check it out. In fact this post is making me want to go back and re-read it again.

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