BY ASA COOPER
Somalia is facing one of its worst food crises in recent history. An unprecedented four consecutive failed rains have created drought conditions that have left over four million people at severe levels of food insecurity and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes. The crisis has been exacerbated by conflict and insecurity both domestically and abroad. The war in Ukraine has caused food prices to spike globally while an increase in insecurity due to the long-running conflict with al-Shabaab has prevented many families from planting crops vital to their survival, for both direct consumption and market access. Additionally, political infighting has prevented an effective response from the central government. Meanwhile, the international community has remained focused on the war in Ukraine, highlighting gross inequalities in the international humanitarian response architecture. Still, despite being ranked as the second most fragile country on the FSI this year, there are lessons in the ways in which Somalia has become increasingly resilient in the management of droughts over the last decade. These lessons offer insights on how governments and international partners can address the immediate needs of populations affected by food insecurity in fragile and conflict-affected situations.
In the last hundred years, the Horn of Africa has presented the most severe cases of famine across the globe. In response to this, the international development community has undertaken significant efforts to develop Early Warning and Early Response (EWER) systems that will alert the relevant actors to increased risk of famine and support communities in preventing and managing shocks without spiraling into high levels of food insecurity and associated social and political instability. While these efforts have seen significant results, they are far from fully addressing the issue.
Somalia experienced the first famine of the 21st century in 2011. Sparked by multiple failed rains beginning in mid-2010, the crisis killed over 250,000 people by 2012. The Famine Early Warnings Systems Network (FEWS-NET) successfully sounded the alarm about the approaching crisis, releasing their first warning in August of 2010 and continuing to do so into and throughout 2011. While this was a significant step towards famine prevention, a proper response failed to materialize until it was far too late, nearly 11 months after the first FEWS-NET warning. Exacerbating the challenge of coordinating a national and international response, at that time, Somalia was still being governed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), largely from a position of exile, as al-Shabaab controlled most of southern Somalia including the port of Mogadishu. However, Somalis, even among poor and rural communities, were early and enthusiastic adopters of financial technology innovations. In 2011, Hormuud Telecom, a Mogadishu-based private company launched a mobile money platform which revolutionized trade, commerce, as well as humanitarian response in the years to come. Cash-based assistance blunted the disaster in 2011 by allowing for quick and easy dissemination to hard-to-reach populations.
In 2017, severe drought struck the Horn of Africa once again. By that time, two fundamental things had changed. First, Somalia had a Mogadishu-based Federal Government that could partner with private sector and the international community. Second, mobile money was now ubiquitous in Somalia, used by everyone, from the elites to market traders, and even beggars on the street. While the devastation of the 2017 drought should not be understated, there was a noticeable improvement in the early response that allowed Somalia to avoid reaching a famine-level crisis.
The Somalia government declared a drought in February 2017 in response to the early warning from FEWS-NET a month earlier in January 2017. The response was immediate with UN OCHA delivering a report that mobilized over $800 million in funding. This funding assisted the Somali government in establishing the national Drought Operations Coordination Centers (DOCCs) in multiple cities as well as the National Humanitarian Coordination Center. This allowed the government and its partners to coordinate a comprehensive response that provided food, medical and livelihood assistance to millions of Somalis across the country.
Cash-based assistance played a crucial role in mitigating the crisis in 2017. While the drought had reduced food production and livelihoods in the country, many of the markets were still functioning as food continued to be imported. The cash-based assistance allowed Somalis to access these markets and kept crucial parts of the economy running throughout the crisis. The efficacy of this intervention highlights the resiliency of the Somali people and the need for the government and international donors to utilize local, bottom-up approaches as much as possible when tailoring responses.
While the successes of the 2017 response inspired hope for the avoidance of future crises in Somalia, the current situation in the country has diminished much of that hope. FEWS-NET has delivered numerous warnings since the first rains failed in 2021 and continues to do so as the situation deteriorates. Despite this, the international community has failed to adequately respond to the crisis, as much of the world’s attention has remained focused on the war in Ukraine. However, humanitarian response is not a zero-sum game, and the international community has the ability to support both Ukranians and Somalis in their fight for survival. Food security expert Daniel Maxwell stated, “With all the attention in the media and the sort of geopolitical priorities that Ukraine comprises, the amount of additional assistance for other parts of the world, I think, is going to be pretty constrained. We should be able to think about two problems at once. But I’m not sure that there’s evidence that we’re fully doing that.”
The crises that struck Somalia in 2011 and 2017 present important opportunities for the situation in Somalia today. The successes, failures and subsequent lessons learned from both can inform responses that will be crucial to avoiding further death and destruction of livelihoods. The resilience and adaptability of the Somali people in the face of increasing droughts in the region has demonstrated that a little bit of support goes a long way in achieving this goal.
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