The United Nations (UN) recently announced that the ongoing crisis in parts of Somalia is a famine, as East Africa experiences what experts believe to be the worst drought in roughly 60 years. This humanitarian emergency has not only called into question the world’s preparedness for dealing with such a crisis, but it has also lead to a mass appeal for donations. This week, we talk to CIGI Chair in Global Environmental Governance and global food systems expert, Jennifer Clapp, about why this situation is occurring and how the international community should respond.

CIGI: What contributed to this crisis, could food aid further complicate and damage the situation, and what should the international community’s role be in alleviating the suffering in East Africa?

Jennifer Clapp: The UN last week formally declared the situation a famine because people are finding that their access to food has been cut off to such an extent that they don’t have enough food to survive. Certain parts of southern Somalia have exceeded the UN’s definition of a famine: two deaths per day per 10,000 people, and acute malnutrition is over 30 percent with restricted access to calories and water.  Famine also denotes a situation where peoples’ livestock have died, and due to drought, people are not able to farm. This means people are typically on the move in mass numbers trying to reach camps where they can obtain relief aid.

East Africa is prone to failure in the rains, but it’s not just drought that caused this particular famine. Food prices on world markets have gone up sharply in the last couple of years and because the region is quite reliant on food from the outside, people’s access has been affected by the higher prices.  There is also a high reliance on food aid in the region, and food aid levels globally have been dropping in recent years, as soaring food prices make it more expensive for donors to provide enough food.

In the case of Somalia, there is also an ongoing conflict, which has created physical barriers to peoples’ access to food. So really it’s a triple problem contributing to the famine: production has fallen with the drought, food has become more expensive, and conflict is preventing the movement of food to people who need it.

It is important that emergency food aid be provided in order to stop deaths; this needs to happen from a humanitarian perspective. But if the global community responds to this particular incident of famine with food aid and nothing else, it could contribute to further dependency. The global community needs to recognize that it must play a role in creating more resilient agricultural systems in the region to reduce that dependence on outside food. Farm aid to East Africa can’t just be for large-scale, industrial style farms. It needs to support localized and ecologically sound small-scale farming, if the region is to be truly resilient and able to bounce back from these types of crises.

Traditionally, the G8 has been the group that has taken the lead on international assistance and pledges, but if the G20 is going to displace the G8, then it will need to tackle these kinds of issues. The G20 has been dealing with issues of food price volatility, as we saw when the agriculture ministers met in June, but they weren’t talking per se about emergency responses. They did say a little about endorsing the idea of the World Food Programme (WFP) having an emergency reserve system, but there was controversy around that suggestion. Some G20 countries feel that food reserves and food stocks meddle too much with markets. The G20 needs to realize that in emergency situations, if the market on its own is unable to bring food to where it is needed, then you must meddle with the market to some extent in order to address acute hunger.  

At the G8 summit in L'Aquila and the G20 summit in Pittsburg, there was a commitment to provide $20 billion in agricultural assistance, but not all of that amount has been provided - in fact, most of it hasn’t been. The G20 could really rattle cages and get governments to give the money that was promised, putting it toward building more resilient farming systems.

CIGI: How would you rate the WFP’s response to the current situation in Somalia and East Africa, and do you think that warning signs were communicated clearly and loudly enough?

Clapp: I think the WFP is always facing an uphill battle. Executive Director Josette Sheeran is a dynamic and completely committed person who is doing a fantastic job in raising awareness about emerging food crises.

The WFP is, however, in a difficult situation because it doesn’t have guaranteed funding from the UN. It has to raise money through voluntary contributions, so it’s constantly communicating with donors to ensure that they provide the assistance that the WFP needs to carry out its programs. When an emergency situation occurs for which it does not have a budget to address, it has to put out special emergency appeals, and it’s hard for the WFP to put out an emergency appeal before a situation is grave, because donors aren’t then likely to take it seriously. It’s kind of in a catch-22 situation. If it received guaranteed funding from the UN ahead of time, the WFP would be have been able to do something in the region before the situation deteriorated into a crisis.

At the same time, I should say that we have a Food Aid Convention (FAC) that is totally separate; it’s a treaty of donor countries that pledge to provide a guaranteed amount, and the whole idea is that it should provide the back stock. The problem is that level is set too low —it’s about 5.4 million metric tons. Right now, the FAC is being renegotiated and the big issue that has people worried is that donors aren’t likely to increase the minimum amount that would provide a basic level of aid to cover emergencies as they arise. In fact, the minimum might go down, because there’s a budget crunch in most donor countries right now.

The WFP is also having trouble getting into certain parts of southern Somalia right now, and that’s because it, along with a number of aid agencies, has been banned by some of the militant groups in the region from actually bringing in aid. The WFP is trying to carry out airdrops and work with the non-governmental organizations that can get in, but asking a small aid group to take on such huge logistical challenges can be difficult. And the airdrops are very expensive. I think the WFP has done what it can within its budgetary constraints. The big problem is that the WFP is facing a variable funding situation, and that needs to change if it’s going to be able to prevent the worst from happening, which is what we’re seeing right now.

The global community needs to recognize that it must play a role in creating more resilient agricultural systems.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.