Drought / East Africa / Ethiopia / Europe / Food Security / Ireland / Kenya / Pastoralism / Somalia / Vulnerability

Ireland’s longstanding support for Somalia’s poor and its current fight against another ‘Great Hunger’

Famine Statue 7

Statue commemorating The Great Hunger in 18th-century Ireland (photo on Flickr by munksynz).

Carl O’Brian in the Irish Times yesterday (26 Jul 2011) asks: ‘When does a food crisis become a famine?’

Irish journalists, people, government officials and aid agents have a particular passion for fighting famine, which so devastated their country in the mid-1800s, killing in just 7 years some one million people and causing another million to emigrate.

Concern, an Irish humanitarian agency, is one of only a handful of aid agencies that has continued working in Somalia, where famine was officially declared in two southern regions last week, since its government collapsed some two decades ago, since which the country has maintained an informal economy, based mainly on livestock, remittance/money transfer companies and telecommunications.

Like Ireland’s ‘Great Hunger’ (‘an Gorta Mór’), caused by a potato disease, the famine in Somalia is being ascribed to a drought of several years, but in both cases the proximate natural disease and drought causes were and are being exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors.

In Ireland’s case, ‘huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation. Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine. Christine Kinealy writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon and ham actually increased during the famine. The food was shipped under guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland. However, the poor had no money to buy food and the government then did not ban exports.’ —Wikipedia

In Somalia, according to the United Nations, the other factors underlying the famine include ‘large-scale displacement, widespread destitution, disease outbreaks and social collapse’.

It is these, non-proximate, causes of famine that stop so many rich nations and aid agencies from supporting countries like Somalia, with the result ‘that the international community ends up responding too late’.

‘While many countries face food security crises from time to time,’ writes O’Brian,’only rarely do the conditions meet the humanitarian community’s formal criteria for a famine. The last time it was used in Somalia, for example, was in 1991–1992, despite several periods of protracted drought and other problems in the intervening years.’

‘Many are critical of how long it has taken for the international community to mobilise,’ O’Brian reports.

‘“The crisis has been building for several months, but the response from international donors and regional governments has been mostly slow, inadequate and complacent,” Fran Equiza, the regional director of the aid agency Oxfam, said in a statement.

‘“There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act.”

‘He said there was still a shortfall of hundreds of millions of euro in funding, adding that by the time the UN calls it a famine, “it is already a signal of large-scale loss of life”.

‘. . . UN officials say humanitarian funding to Somalia has declined significantly over recent years. The US, for example—once the country’s biggest donor—has reduced its funding by almost 90 per cent in recent years.

‘This is due mostly to concerns over the diversion of aid by Islamic militants, who have previously placed restrictions on agencies working in parts of southern Somalia.

‘Ireland, like other donor countries, is routing the bulk of its aid to Somalia via the UN as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground such as Concern.

‘The Government announced last week that its €5.6 million aid package includes supporting Concern to provide food rations for 10,000 people and treat 1,800 malnourished children.

‘In addition, it is providing funds to the UN to help distribute food and shelter for Somalia refugees fleeing to Ethiopia and Kenya.

‘. . . Governments in fragile states have the reach and the infrastructure to bring about deeper and longer-term change—but these are places that, by definition, have poor governance and high levels of corruption.

‘According to Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas, an umbrella group of 39 aid agencies, working with governments is crucial. “Development co-operation involves taking risks. If we want aid to be risk-free, we might as well give it to Switzerland, not to developing countries,” he said.

‘Mr Zomer said these fragile states needed assistance precisely because their governments were weak, disinterested or undemocratic.

‘“We can choose to ignore these failings, in the hope that the oppression and mismanagement will magically disappear, or we can choose to use our influence to strengthen the forces for change in those countries.”

‘In the case of Somalia, he said that without government, there would be no development and society’s ability to withstand unexpected setbacks would be seriously diminished. . . .’

A famine is declared only when:

  • at least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages
  • acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%
  • the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 people.

World’s five severe food shortages
‘According to UN’s World Food Programme, five severe food shortages have been officially defined as “famines” in recent decades:

  • Southern areas of Sudan in 2008
  • In Gode in the Somali region of Ethiopia in 2000
  • In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1996
  • In Somalia in 1991–1992
  • Ethiopia in 1984–1985.’
Read the whole article at the Irish Times: When does a food crisis become a famine?, 26 Jul 2011.
To learn more or find out how you can help, contact Concern or Oxfam.

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