I was watching The Weather Channel this morning, wondering if rain would mess up my plans for tonight, when an international weather update stopped me in my tracks. The piece was on the relentless drought in Somalia, and the resulting famine and the displacement of millions of Somalis. The story struck a chord with me. A week-long heat wave followed by thunderstorms suddenly didn't seem like such a big deal, and I was prompted to seek out more information, because I'm nerdy like that.
Last week, famine was officially declared by the United Nations in two regions of southern Somalia. This is the first time a famine has been declared since 2000, in Ethiopia, and the first time it's been declared in Somalia since 1991, which is also the year in which civil war began, effectively destroying the central government, which has not been reestablished. Famine is declared after certain criteria are met: at least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages; acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30%; and the daily death rate exceeds two people per 10,000 people (as of last week, children were dying at a rate of six per 10,000 per day) Other factors considered in the Somalia declaration included large-scale displacement, widespread poverty, and disease outbreaks. In fact, in some areas of Somalia, over half the population is malnourished. Declaration of famine doesn’t carry any binding obligations on the UN or member states, but it does serve to focus global attention on the problem.
The Islamist militant groups who run Somalia have traditionally prohibited aid from reaching much of the country, and a loosening of this ban earlier this week has the UN, World Health Organization, and other agencies scrambling to assemble the logistics of delivering food aid to hundreds of thousands of Somalis. This morning, the first shipment of nutritional supplements arrived in Somalia, where local humanitarian organizations will distribute it into the countryside. Today's 10-ton delivery of peanut-based nutritional paste (which is called Plumpy'nut, by the way) is expected to feed 3500 children for one month, which is nowhere near enough, but hopefully the militants will continue to stay out of the way of further humanitarian aid.
Today, Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States would give $28 million in aid to Somalia, on top of the more than $431 million in food and other emergency assistance it has provided this year to the eastern Horn of Africa. The financial troubles of the United States have not yet stripped us of our title as the world's aid provider in chief. There are those that will say that we need to take care of our own before giving money to other countries that can't take care of themselves. While we certainly shouldn't turn our backs on the needy in our own back yards (I'm looking at YOU, John Boehner) our crises pale in comparison to the drought and famine that threatens millions in the Horn of Africa. The problems in Somalia can't be solved with tons of Plumpy'nut, but if it can keep children alive, I say let's buy as much as we can and ship it over.
Seriously, do a Google search for "Somalia famine" today. I've learned a lot today about a part of the world that gets scant attention, and needs as much of it as it can get.