- Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011–12 by Daniel Maxwell, Nisar Majid
For more than thirty years, Somalia has presented a sea of challenges to governments and agencies in the West. The instability of the government, extreme geographical and climate issues, involvement with piracy, proximity to conflicts in the Middle East, potential as a liaison to terrorist groups, and even the complex network of kin and clan relationships create an environment that complicates efforts of humanitarian and government agencies when crises develop in the region. Famine affects the Horn of Africa frequently. Daniel Maxwell and Nisar Majid provide a comprehensive analysis of the 2011–12 famine. They not only examine the literature and statistics on nutrition, rainfall, livestock, food availability, and farming practices, but they also present interviews with Somalis, the complications of delivering aid to Al-Shabaab controlled areas, and the successes and failures of traditional Western and Islamic relief efforts.
Because much of the industrialized world considers Al-Shabaab a terrorist organization, this opened the possibility that aid workers and organizations could be persecuted for assisting the Somali people. Al-Shabaab also placed restrictions on who and what could enter Somalia: outlawing, for example, any food labeled from the World Food Program. Since many aid agencies had left Somalia (and the remaining ones were expelled), operations often originated in Kenya, which left workers and volunteers with little idea what was actually happening on the ground in famine-affected regions. The famine of 2011–12 was most likely caused by two consecutive failed rainy seasons, but the fiasco of relief efforts and the time it took to correct that failure exacerbated the disaster.
In addition, Al-Shabaab changed the tax system in regions under their control, which placed greater burdens on farmers. Farmers turned to cash crops like sesame instead of traditional crops like sorghum. In a drought, sesame cannot survive. Families stockpile sorghum reserves specifically because when [End Page 119] the rains fail the crop can feed livestock and people. Sesame and other cash crops offer no such security. Farmers had also invested in cattle, rather than camels and goats, and the lack of rain depleted available grazing lands. Families would use their monetary savings to buy food to keep their cattle alive.
Once relief agencies could bypass concerns about Al-Shabaab intercepting their deliveries and the possibility that their own governments would persecute them for aiding terrorists, the immediacy of the need made simple distribution of food inadequate. Many people had lost children, cattle, and all their savings. Those people who had the strongest and most international kin network fared best. If the family went to a refugee/feeding camp, one person could stay behind with the remaining livestock. If a family had an overseas relative, money from that relative could buy food.
UNICEF was one of the first aid agencies to propose a cash voucher program. Much of the international community had two concerns about the distribution of money: would it get to the right people and would the influx of money and demand for food inflate prices even more? The distribution of cash to Somali families utilized telephone transfers, a popular method of monetary exchange that bypasses the need to enter Al-Shabaab territory and controls who receives the funds. The international price of food dropped about the same time the transfer program hit the ground so this absorbed the shock of any increased demand.
These are merely the highlights of problems and solutions discussed by Maxwell and Majid. Maxwell, professor of nutrition and humanitarian studies at Tufts University, and Majid, a researcher and consultant on food security, both have significant experience with food security on the Horn of Africa. Both worked with agencies in the region: Maxwell with CARE International and Majid with Save the Children. Their book uses a variety of research methods and analyses to look at what happened and they propose ideas for improvement in the future. They offer statistics. They have read the literature. They have interviewed Somalis and relief agency workers from both...