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USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) saw this coming a long way off.  Sifting through their archive of food security updates, there are myriad warnings of drought and an impending food security crisis.  As early as August 2010, FEWS NET predicted “below-normal rains… due to a developing La Niña event” and an executive brief warned of its potential to “undermine recent food security gains.”  These warnings quickly turned dire: “In areas where limited humanitarian assistance is expected (i.e. south and central Somalia), pastoral households are likely to become extremely food insecure.”

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Fast forward two dry ‘rainy seasons’ and one declaration of famine later, and people are wondering why the international community didn’t see this coming.  The reality is that USAID has been preparing for this crisis for nearly a year, has already delivered 360,000 metric tons of food assistance to the Horn of Africa (much of it pre-positioned), and has provided $459 million of assistance thus far in FY2011.  In July, the Horn of Africa Drought Task Force was formed to monitor conditions and identify humanitarian needs, and a Disaster Assistance Response Team was established in Nairobi and Addis Ababa – supported by a Response Management Team in Washington – to coordinate government-wide relief efforts.

So if the crisis was detected very early on and the U.S. has been active in its response, why is there famine in southern Somalia?  While the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia blames a variety of factors ranging from crops failure to limitations on humanitarian access, Charles Kenny is much more direct in his assessment: “In order to ensure widespread death by starvation, a governing authority must make a conscious decision: it must actively exercise the power to take food from producers who need it or deny food assistance to victims.”  Owen Barder makes a similar argument in saying famine is caused by poverty, the failure of markets, or the failure of government.  Evidence that drought is not sufficient to cause famine can be gleaned by just looking at a map of the region; conditions are much better even in Ethiopia than they are just across the border in Somalia.

So while development aid and humanitarian assistance have alleviated the situation somewhat in neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, Somalia remains in a dire situation due to limited access and instability.  Furthermore, the U.S. has severely limited its foreign assistance to Somalia since 2009 due to a new rule from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

Despite this restriction, the U.S. has pledged additional aid to Somalia provided it is directed to areas not under the control of al-Shabaab.  Unfortunately, both famine areas in Somalia are controlled by al-Shabaab, making it impossible for this aid to reach the worst affected populations.  Additionally, consistent with the OFAC rule, the aid is contingent on the WFP being able to show that it will not materially benefit al-Shabaab and that there is “unfettered access” for the implementing agency.  Thus, the policy decision becomes a ‘catch-22’: either provide assistance to the famine areas with little or no assurance that it will not be ‘taxed’ by al-Shabaab or do not provide assistance to the very worst off.  The Obama Administration appears to be moving towards the former policy option:

“[W]e are seeking to reassure our humanitarian assistance partners, implementing partners, that they need not fear prosecution under OFAC regulations as long as they are engaged in good-faith efforts to deliver food to people in need… the concern about diversion to al-Shabaab I think has made some humanitarian assistance organizations feel a bit constrained, and we’re trying to help them not feel constrained, trying to help them move the food to where it’s most desperately needed.”

This recent policy decision appears to be a calculated risk that will hopefully have substantial benefits.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.