On Friday, February 2, the United Nations declared an end to the famine in the Horn of Africa that killed tens of thousands of people in the last nine months. With an unstable political situation and 2.3 million people still in need of food, there is a high likelihood that famine conditions will return to the region within the next 100 days. While natural occurrences such as drought may have initiated the famine, its severity and persistence can be attributed to people and politics. Indeed, the situation in the Horn of Africa is a perfect storm of environmental, local, and international dynamics, topped off by the presence of a militant Islamist group blockading aid efforts.
For this very reason, it is imperative that we consider multi-dimensional solutions to the crisis in the Horn of Africa. The need will not end with the UN’s declaration last Friday, nor will the political situation change over night. Activists have called on the media and on donors to continue to pay attention and give money to maintain a response to the humanitarian needs, and we agree. But as members of the Harvard community, we should all seek to encourage further academic engagement to derive holistic, multi-disciplinary solutions.
The UN reserves the label of “famine” for only the most severe emergencies—at least two deaths per 10,000 people per day, at least 30 percent of children with acute malnutrition, and at least 20 percent of the population unable to reach its food need. When the UN declared famine last July, the region, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti, had faced nearly two successive years of almost no rainfall and over 12 million individuals needed food aid. Somalia fared the worst, as years of political instability and war have left millions displaced and al-Shabaab, the group with de facto control over the country, has blocked food aid and shut down refugee camps.
Indeed, al-Shabaab is the most obvious reason why simple humanitarian solutions cannot end the famine in Somalia. Al-Shabaab has denied access to aid organizations, evicted refugee camps, and prompted widespread violence throughout the region, taking credit for bombings in Somalia and neighboring countries. Because of this, al-Shabaab is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, which puts Somalia on the map in the U.S. war on terror. The African Union has had a force in Somalia since 2007, and Kenya invaded in 2011, introducing regional complexity to the humanitarian crisis. But U.S. policy towards the region is additionally sensitive due to the Black Hawk Down tragedy in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers died on a mission in Mogadishu. For these reasons, no matter what develops in Somalia, the U.S. is unlikely to ever put troops on the ground, leaving Kenyans and other African nations to deal with al-Shabaab. However, as Davidson College Professor Kenneth J. Menkhaus points out, while responding to al-Shabaab is necessary, responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis will draw attention to Shabaab’s inhumane acts, weakening its stronghold in the country. Sensitivity to the historical and political situation in Somalia is key to effective intervention, but it should not detract from the importance of fighting acute malnutrition and food shortages.
Much work has been done to study food security in the developing world and many of the manmade causes of this famine are known. Soaring food prices have played a large role. Last August, the prices of maize and sorghum, two important staples, were 84 percent and 240 percent higher than a year before. In addition to poor local harvests, U.S. production of ethanol and the diversion of crops for the production of biofuels have exacerbated price increases. A systemic underinvestment in agriculture in East and Central Africa has led to decreased agricultural capacity in recent years. While up to 60 percent of the populations of many of these nations depend on agriculture for their livelihood, many governments devote only five percent of national expenditure to agriculture. At the same time, investment in infrastructure is vitally important for the transportation of crops and fertilizer. Robert L. Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, has been mapping the impact of the under-usage of biotechnology in Africa. Scientific advances in developing seeds resistant to drought and insects would greatly improve the region’s food production, where farmers are now less productive on a per-capita basis than they were in 1970. Paarlberg posits that the spread of such technology has been held up by the richer countries in which they were developed. The usage of newly developed surveillance techniques, a focus of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, could allow for improved early warning systems.
We now know many of the causes of famine, but coordinating the response in a tense political climate remains challenging for humanitarian organizations. Consequently, donors who want to support the cause are left unsure about which organizations can reach people in need, who can bring about immediate relief, and how we can transition to long-term change. As a university, our mandate must be to reach greater understanding of the crisis by bringing together experts from many disciplines. Harvard has responded in important ways to humanitarian crises in the past, from fundraising to utilizing its academic expertise, and we commend the important strides it has made in responding to this crisis. I hope the university continues to leverage its academic capital to bring about an end to one of the most complex recurring crises to face humanity.
Lily H. Ostrer ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.