The Somalia Conference must avert the threat of famine

10 May 2017
Comment

The UK-convened Somalia Conference tomorrow brings together heads of states and officials from across East Africa, as well as key development and humanitarian partners, to address the major challenges facing the country.

As leaders deliberate over the long-term issues of political reform, stability, and security, they must ensure that this is not done in isolation from the extensive impact of a potential famine.

Hunger, drought, and war have already displaced two million Somalis, while almost 1.5 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition – a 50% increase from estimates in January.

The threat of a famine in Somalia is acute. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has increased from five million to 6.2 million in the past eight months. Hunger, drought, and war have already displaced two million Somalis, while almost 1.5 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition – a 50% increase from estimates in January.

While we have seen an increase in the humanitarian response, the severity of the current drought continues to overwhelm response efforts. But it’s not too late to avert another devastating famine.

The conference presents a crucial opportunity to address the administrative blockages and lengthy bureaucratic procedures hindering aid delivery. Conversations on counter-terrorism mechanisms to improve security must also address the constraints these place on measures to effectively tackle the looming crisis.

Somalia is at a critical tipping point. As leaders address the long-term security and stability issue along with the immediate, pressing concerns of famine, much can be learned from the shortcomings of 2011 and years of fighting food insecurity in Somalia.

Here are three key lessons that must be heeded. 

1. Avoid delay

The first lesson is the critical importance of avoiding any delay. In 2011, it took 16 warnings from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) and Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) for the UN to declare a famine. In hindsight, everyone agreed that concerted humanitarian action should have taken place after the third.

We are currently at warning number two with a third on its way, but the response has not yet reached the threshold required. The international community must urgently scale up its capacity to assist.

2. Allow funds to flow

The second lesson leaders must heed is the importance of allowing financial flows to reach those in need. During the last famine, cash transfers were instrumental in keeping people alive and enabling them to preserve crucial assets such as livestock. Cash transfers play a fundamental role in Somalia's stability and food security.

About $1.4 billion in remittances – 23% of the country’s GDP – is channelled to the country by the 1.5 million Somalis living overseas thanks to the hawala money-transfer system. An estimated £320 million is sent to Somalia by the UK diaspora alone, far exceeding international aid flows.

However, counter-terrorism measures severely hampered relief efforts in Somalia in 2011 and threatened remittance flows. Such constraints may stymie the response again unless actively addressed.

3. Work with local groups and networks

A third and final lesson is the need for both governments and aid agencies to better engage with the full range of possible responders. The role of Somalis themselves – including the diaspora – has been decisive in addressing food security threats in Somalia to date. Much of the immediate response in 2011 came from local communities and networks.

This presents both opportunities and challenges for an international aid community that has to work with local structures, organisations and networks, while also remaining mindful of potential diversion and politicisation of aid in Somalia.

Somalia at a crossroads

With the recent democratic presidential election, Somalia is showing encouraging signs of progress. Somalis and the international community are starting to notice changes at the socioeconomic and political levels. The conference is an important step towards solidifying international commitments to help Somalia towards a more secure and stable future.

Donors have given money but blockages remain that can only be addressed at the highest political levels.

Leaders tomorrow must have the political courage to also recognise and lift the obstacles that have been hindering the humanitarian response. Donors have given money but blockages remain that can only be addressed at the highest political levels.

Somalia is a country that all too frequently stands on the precipice of famine, or faces its devastating effects. This is no longer acceptable. This conference provides an opportunity to move away from the brinkmanship of injecting large amounts of humanitarian assistance when crisis point is reached. Instead, leaders must provide the predictable resources and political leverage that ensure Somalis are never again faced with the prospect of a catastrophe that should be consigned to the history books.