Somalia: Manufacturing a Famine | United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)

How the crisis became a fund-raising opportunity

Rasna Warah


cc Internews Network

WFP has conducted an ‘aggressive fundraising campaign to cover the needs of south and central Somalia till the end of the year.’ But what are those needs, and who is assessing them, asks Rasna Warah.

On July 18 this year, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea tabled a report to the UN Security Council.

The report stated that United Nations agencies, international humanitarian aid organisations and local Somali non-governmental organisations had been forced to move their operations or cease them entirely in many parts of Somalia, mainly due to “an alarming void in international humanitarian aid and development assistance,” and also because of “threats from elements of Al Shabaab,” who control much of southern Somalia.

Two days later, the UN’s World Food Programme — the largest distributor of food aid to Somalia — declared that Bakool and Lower Shebelle, two regions in southern Somalia, had been hit by the worst famine in 20 years.

The UN agency further claimed that 3.7 million people across the country — almost half the total Somali population – were in danger of starving, of which 2.8 million were in the south.

This declaration led to a massive multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign by UN and international humanitarian agencies. Meanwhile, journalists began referring to the famine as a “biblical event.” By September, Time magazine was reporting that the famine had expanded and that a full 12.4 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda were at risk from hunger.

The magazine also stated that in southern Somalia, 63 per cent of the population was either starving or at risk of it.

These figures did not convince many Somali analysts, including Ahmed Jama, a Nairobi-based agricultural economist and former consultant with the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.

“I was disturbed by the WFP announcement because Lower Shebelle is Somalia’s breadbasket and had even experienced a bumper harvest last year,” he told this writer.

UN agencies, including WFP, use an Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) scale developed by the FAO-managed Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) to determine levels of food insecurity, which range from “generally food secure” to “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.”

IPC uses a number of indicators to pronounce a famine: Acute malnutrition in more than 30 per cent of children; two deaths per 10,000 people daily; a pandemic illness; access to less than four litres of water and 2,100 kilocalories of food a day; large scale displacement; civil strife; and complete loss of assets and income.

Jama says that the IPC scale is too broad to be useful because it could apply to virtually every African country, where malnutrition and poverty levels are generally high.

“In the case of Somalia, the timing of the UN’s famine appeal appeared suspect, as it coincided with the beginning of the peak harvest season in July and the start of the short rains, known as Deyr, in September,” he adds. “And this is not the first time that a famine has been declared. It seems that in the past 20 years, Somalia has been in a permanent state of crisis, instead of moving towards development despite the myriad development agencies operating in the country.”


“Historically, people from Bay and Bakool move to Lower Shebelle during a drought and go back during the short rainy season between August and September,” says Jama. “So, even if there are people who face starvation in food insecure areas, their migration to Lower Shebelle is usually temporary, and does not warrant a declaration of famine.”

Luca Alivoni, the head of FAO-Somalia insists, however, that the food crisis in southern Somalia affected farmers more than pastoralists in the north because farmers tend to stay on their farms “to protect their crops”, whereas pastoralists migrate with their animals to areas where there is pasture.

“Farmers cannot move with their land, so when there is a famine, they face starvation,” he says. “And that is why Lower Shebelle was so affected.”

But was there really widespread famine, or were the famine figures exaggerated or misinterpreted? FSNAU’s estimates for Somali populations “in crisis” in the period August-September 2011 were highest in the most fertile southern parts of Somalia, and were highest in those areas controlled by Al Shabaab.

Significantly, there were only 490,000 people (less than one-eighth of Nairobi’s population) in Somalia who were experiencing what the IPC classifies as “famine” or a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

In fact, about half of the nearly four million people that the WFP claims are starving are actually experiencing what is known as a “humanitarian emergency”; the rest are in an “acute food and livelihood crisis.”

Therefore, I think the widely reported “famine” in Somalia is highly exaggerated. What Somalia is experiencing is generalised food insecurity, not widespread famine. Unfortunately, most media organisations have failed to mention or comprehend this fact.

Is it possible that the “famine” in Somalia was “manufactured” to raise funds? The sequence of events leading to the famine appeal certainly raises suspicions. According to Jama, the timing of the famine declaration in July was probably a response to the shortfall of funds that WFP has recently been experiencing and also to divert attention from the criticism that the UN agency was subjected to after the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia released its 2010 report in March last year.

Then, WFP was castigated by the UN Monitoring Group for colluding with corrupt Somali contractors who are known to sell or divert food aid. Sources interviewed by the Monitoring Group — an entity mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor arms embargo violations in Somalia — estimated that up to half of the food aid reaching Somalia was regularly diverted, not just by Somali transport contractors, but by WFP personnel and NGOs operating in Somalia. That 2010 report led some donors, notably the US, to withdraw funding to WFP’s operations in Somalia.

However, the European Commission is one of the major donors that has continued to support the UN’s efforts in Somalia since 1995.

The EC has been providing core funding to various projects to enhance food security in Somalia, which are implemented by various UN agencies and international NGOs, including FAO. Currently, the EC has committed a total of 175 million euros to various programmes and projects throughout Somalia that deal with governance, security, health and education. In Lower Shebelle, the bulk of the EC’s assistance goes towards rural development and food security projects, mainly for irrigation rehabilitation and crop diversification. The share of rural development and food security projects receiving EC funding is also high in the Middle Shabelle region, where almost half the EC funding goes towards these projects.

Given the high level of EC investment towards rural development and food security in the past 15 years, it is paradoxical that southern Somalia should continuously suffer from acute food insecurity. Georges-Marc André, the European Union representative to Somalia, told this writer that this could be due to the fact that the full impact of EC investments have not yet been realised in Somalia. Besides, he adds, much of the agriculture in Somalia is rain-fed and poor rains last year could have contributed to the famine this year.

Alivoni, on the other hand, blames lack of sufficient investments in Somalia’s agricultural sector. He says that while the EC funding is welcome, it is just a drop in the ocean, and a lot more funds need to be devoted to agriculture to prevent another famine.

Jama, who has studied EC-funded rural development projects in Somalia, finds these arguments weak, considering that much of the EC funding is ostensibly used to rehabilitate irrigation infrastructure and to improve the capacity of farming communities. “Clearly, there is a mismatch between the resources made available by the EC to UN agencies such as FAO and the dismal picture emerging from what are generally considered the most agriculturally productive regions of southern Somalia,” he says.

“How is it possible that millions of euros of investment could not avert a famine in those regions?”

Assessment and monitoring of project success or failure is further complicated by the fact that the EC is not in a position to evaluate projects it funds in Somalia; that job falls on the implementing agencies. According to André, “The EC is not entitled to do external audits of the UN agencies that it funds,” thanks to a 2003 Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement (FIFA) that permits UN organisations to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules”.

In essence, this means that the UN agencies that the EC funds monitor and evaluate their own projects, without recourse to an external auditor or evaluator. And because the EC is a donor, and not the implementer of projects, it largely relies on the UN to provide it with the data and performance reports on projects that it funds. This is problematic, because it means that the UN agencies can easily manipulate the data and the reports to suit their own agendas, needs and funding requirements.


The EU representative to Somalia, however, cautiously admits that the EC is concerned that its efforts in Somalia are being hampered by UN agencies that are flooding Mogadishu with food aid. In an environment where free food is readily available, he explains, farmers do not get value for their produce, which suppresses food production.

Agencies also often work at cross-purposes, with the lack of co-ordination meaning the work of one agency could in effect cancel out the work of another. André says that UN agencies such as WFP and UNDP could actually have “slowed down” Somalia’s recovery by focusing exclusively on food aid, instead of supporting local farmers and markets.

Phillippe Royan, a technical adviser to the EC’s Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), says that a number of donor agencies are also beginning to question WFP’s ability to deliver food aid in all regions of Somalia. “It seems that most of the food aid is concentrated in Mogadishu and does not extend beyond Gaalkacyo (in central Somalia),” he notes.

“This means that affected populations have to walk long distances to reach the food, which carries other hazards. For instance, they could die on the way or be raped. ”

WFP has conducted a very aggressive fundraising campaign to cover the needs of south and central Somalia till the end of the year, says Royan. But what are those needs, and who is assessing them?

According to Royan, FSNAU — which is funded by the EC, and partly by USAid, the Italian government and WFP — is the only setup that provides data on food insecurity in Somalia. Almost every humanitarian organisation relies on its data to assess malnutrition and famine levels in the country. However, given the fact that almost a third of Somalia is “governed” by Al Shabaab, which has banned most UN agencies from operating in areas that it controls, the question arises how FSNAU managed to get so much detailed information on regions such as Bakool and Lower Shebelle, which are Al Shabaab strongholds.

Grainne Moloney, FSNAU’s chief technical advisor, says that her unit’s nutrition surveillance project has 32 full-time Somali field staff and a part-time enumerator network of some 120 people all over Somalia who gather data and do surveys on food security and nutrition.

“There is a common perception that (aid) agencies don’t operate in the Al Shabaab-controlled areas,” she says, “but many agencies work well and quietly in those areas. However, most agencies do not publicise their presence for security reasons.”

What is surprising in the case of Somalia is that the FAO does not see the contradiction between implementing multimillion-euro rural development and food security projects in southern Somalia and at the same time declaring those regions as food insecure. If the projects had been successful, there might not have been a food crisis in the country — with or without Al Shabaab. And if they were not successful, then are the EC funds not wasted in Somalia?

The FAO-managed FSNAU says that the latest crisis in Somalia is due to the failure of the Deyr rainy season last year and poor performance of the long Gu rainy season from April to June this year, which resulted in the worst crop production in 17 years.

The question we might ask is: Why are Somali farmers still relying on the rains when EC and other donors have contributed millions towards irrigation rehabilitation projects?

It is possible these projects were not successful – that most of the funds went to administrative overheads or were mismanaged by project implementation agencies.

Whatever the case, the crisis in Somalia should prompt a rethink at every level of the aid effort.