Drought, Famine and ‘Political Disaster’

by Stephen Devereux, Tom Mills

Though the ongoing food crisis in the Horn of Africa has fallen out of the news recently, the famine continues and food security is projected to deteriorate in several areas.

First published: 13 October, 2011 | Category: 

Stephen Devereux is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton. He is the author of Theories of Famine and editor of The New Famines: Why famines persist in an era of globalisation.  He spoke to Tom Mills about the current situation in Somalia and the broader food crisis in the region.

In July the UN declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia and since then the famine has spread further.  Before we get into causes, could you give some indication as to the scale of the crisis?

Tens of thousands of people have already died during the ongoing food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which has affected over 13 million people, and an estimated 750,000 remain at risk of starvation. The international community is always reluctant to invoke the label ‘famine’, because it signifies a failure of international public action, but there is no question that this is a famine. Two widely accepted criteria for declaring a famine are that the global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate exceeds 30%, and that the death rate in affected areas exceeds 2/10,000/day. In July, nutrition surveys across southern Somalia found GAM rates above 38% in 9 of 11 locations, and death rates above 2/10,000/day were recorded in two locations, prompting the United Nations to declare famine in these areas. [1]

The famine has fallen out of the news recently. What is the current situation?

Although the Horn of Africa has fallen out of the news in recent weeks, as media attention switched to Libya, Syria and the Eurozone financial crisis, the famine is far from over. As of late September 2011, the child mortality rate among internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mogadishu remained well above the famine threshold, at 15.4/10,000/day.[2] In the refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, mortality rates are falling due to the scaling up and increasing effectiveness of the humanitarian response. Within southern Somalia, however, the food security and nutrition situation is projected to deteriorate in several areas during the next few months. The rains will break the drought, but many more weakened lives will be lost to diseases like cholera that proliferate during the rainy season, before the end of this year.

What sections of the population have been most severely affected?

Geographically, the epicentre of the famine is in southern Somalia, but its effects have spread into neighbouring countries, as refugees migrate to northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, which are already facing drought-triggered food crises of their own. This is a very arid part of the world, with low rainfall even in good years. People worst affected are pastoralists and agropastoralists whose livestock (camels, cattle, sheep and goats) have died, and farmers whose harvests have failed. Within families, children are most vulnerable during famines, and this one is no exception. Death rates exceed 4/10,000/day for children under-five in several areas, peaking at 13-20/10,000/day in some riverine farming and agropastoral communities and in IDP camps.[3]

Beyond the immediate horrors of famine, what are the longer term human impacts?

The impact of famine is often quantified in terms of its human mortality – how many people died – but this is only the most extreme and tragic immediate impact. For those left behind, the lasting emotional and psychological impact of having lost their loved ones is incalculable. For pastoralists whose livestock have died, and for farmers whose harvests have failed and have left their land in search of relief, they have also lost their livelihoods, possibly irreversibly. What will they do when the drought is over and they have no productive assets? How will they make a living when the famine relief stops? After the Somali Region famine in Ethiopia of 2000, thousands of pastoralist families ‘dropped out’ and became destitute inhabitants of IDP camps and informal settlements around towns like Gode, permanently dependent on relief, or scraping a living providing services such as water and firewood collection for urban residents. The ongoing famine in Somalia is likely to have precipitated a similar process of accelerated destitution.

How have the Somalia Government and the ‘international community’ responded to the crisis? How effective have the relief efforts been?

Somalia is often described as a ‘failed state’, and weak governance is a large part of the explanation for this famine. Droughts are common in the Horn of Africa, but droughts only develop into famines in the absence of an effective response. The corrupt Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) has negligible political legitimacy and administrative capacity to deliver basic services to the population. By contrast, the autonomous territories of Somaliland and Puntland have avoided famine, partly because their local governments have distributed food reserves and ensured that international agencies can operate freely and securely within their territories.[4]

Not only has the Government of Somalia proved itself incapable of mounting an effective response to the drought, the jihadist group al-Shabaab has actively prevented humanitarian actors from delivering relief within Somalia. Al-Shabaab has also undermined the coping capacity of the drought-affected population, first by taxing them and confiscating their produce, then by preventing many from migrating in search of relief, and most recently by dismantling IDP camps in Baidoa.[5] Some famine analysts have argued that contemporary famines should be considered as crimes against humanity rather than as natural disasters, because they are always preventable.[6] The ‘blame game’ normally focuses on governments and international donors, for their role in either causing or failing to prevent famine. In this case, for their many ‘acts of commission and omission’, al-Shabaab leaders should face justice at the International Criminal Court.

As always with full-blown famines, the response of the international community can only be described as too little, too late. Latest updates from humanitarian agencies document an impressive array of interventions – food aid distribution, supplementary feeding, immunisation, public works, cash transfers, access to water and agricultural inputs – reaching millions of people.[7] But tens of thousands of people have already died. The donor agencies blame the pervasive conflict and insecurity inside Somalia, which first prevented early warning information about the scale and severity of the crisis from reaching actors with capacity to respond, then prevented adequate and timely relief being delivered to affected communities. In fact, this catastrophe was predicted over a year ago, and more concerted efforts should have been taken to prevent it. For example, the logistical efforts of aid agencies to deliver relief should have been supported by diplomatic efforts to negotiate access to famine-affected communities. The Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus has called for a “diplomatic surge … led by eminent global figures and politicians from the Islamic world, Africa, the West, and beyond”, to force the TFG and al-Shabaab to allow free access to relief agencies inside Somalia and to stop the diversion of food aid.[8] This is as much a political crisis as a natural disaster, and a political intervention was always going to be an essential part of an effective response.

The drought has been far more widespread but has not had the same impact everywhere. Why has it affected Somalia in particular?

Droughts are regular events in the Horn of Africa, and sometimes lead to famine, often in combination with conflict. Somalia’s last major famine, in 1991-92 when 300,000 to 500,000 people died, was triggered by drought and civil war. Although the epicentre of the current famine is in southern Somalia, emergency conditions persist in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, where several million people are also affected by drought. The key difference between those countries and Somalia lies in the security situation and the governance context. In Ethiopia and Kenya, extensive donor-supported social protection systems are in place – dominated by the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) and the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) respectively. Though neither is large or generous enough to provide complete protection against a crisis of this magnitude, both have helped to stabilise food consumption and protect the asset base of affected households. The PSNP in Ethiopia has a contingency fund that was triggered by the drought, releasing millions of additional dollars to scale up the number of beneficiaries and the amount of cash or food transferred to existing beneficiaries. This experience has taught us valuable lessons about the synergies between disaster risk management, climate change adaptation and the emerging policy agenda of ‘adaptive social protection’.[9]

In Somalia, on the other hand, the ‘natural disaster’ of drought prompted a response, as noted above, that exacerbated rather than alleviated the crisis. The drought elevated vulnerability, but the underlying causes of the famine are profoundly political, caused by a failure of governance at every level, from local (the invidious role of al-Shabaab) to national (the weakness of the TFG) and international (the late response of humanitarian agencies). Contemporary famines persist because of inadequate political commitment to prevent them. Al-Shabaab and the TFG face no political pressure to ensure that all Somalians are food secure, and Somalia has few friends in the international community. In parts of the Horn of Africa, GAM rates above 20% are so common that this is considered ‘normal’, even though the threshold for declaring an emergency is 15%. More than a decade ago, Mark Bradbury labelled this phenomenon “the normalisation of crisis”.[10] To put it another way, do we really care about people suffering and dying in Somalia?

What can people in richer countries do to help people suffering from famine and to prevent famines in the future?

The immediate response to any humanitarian crisis has to be providing relief to the victims. People in richer countries can and should offer financial support through aid agencies, not just to help vulnerable people survive the immediate threat to their lives but also to support the process of rehabilitation and recovery of livelihoods – which will take time and resources for some time after the television crews have moved on to the next big news story. But in complex emergencies like this one, sending money is not enough. As global citizens, we all have a duty to be aware and informed, and to put pressure on our governments and international institutions to respond more effectively. In the longer term, in the specific case of Somalia, a political solution is needed that includes engaging constructively with the TFG to strengthen its governance and build the resilience of local livelihoods against the inevitability of future droughts.

Four major famines have now occurred in Africa in just over a decade, each claiming tens of thousands of lives – in Ethiopia in 1999-2000, Malawi in 2001-2002, Niger in 2004-2005, and now Somalia in 2011. Three common factors link all these catastrophes: drought-triggered declines in crop and livestock production, dysfunctional relationships between national governments and international donors at critical moments, and unaccountability for famine prevention in low-income countries with weak governance.[11] Only the first of these is about ‘natural disasters’ and food shortages; the other two are about ‘political disasters’ – failures of response. The avoidable tragedy of famine will only be eradicated once we, as citizens of the world, express our outrage loudly and forcibly enough that culpable local actors, national governments and the international community are finally held accountable for these criminal acts against all of humanity. 

Tom Mills is a freelance investigative researcher based in London, a PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde and a co-editor of the New Left Project.



[1]  FEWS NET (20 July 2011) Horn of Africa Emergency [http://v4.fews.net/docs/Publications/FSNAU_FEWSNET_200711].

[2]  OCHA (29 September 2011) Horn of Africa Crisis: Situation Report No. 16. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) [http://www.unocha.org/crisis/horn-africa-crisis].

[3]  FEWS NET (20 July 2011) Horn of Africa Emergency.

[4]  Kirthi Jayakumar and Joe Sutcliffe (September 9, 2011) Famine in Somalia: Who is to blame? e International Relations [http://www.e-ir.info/?p=13859].

[5]  Matt Bryden (October 2011) Somalia’s Famine is Not Just a Catastrophe, It’s a Crime. The Enough Project [www.enoughproject.org].

[6]  Jenny Edkins (2007) The criminalization of mass starvations: From natural disaster to crime against humanity, chapter 3 in S. Devereux (editor) The New Famines: Why famines persist in an era of globalization. London and New York: Routledge.

[7]  OCHA (29 September 2011) Horn of Africa Crisis: Situation Report No. 16.

[8]  Ken Menkhaus (September 2011) A Diplomatic Surge to Stop Somalia’s Famine. Enough Policy Briefing. The Enough Project [www.enoughproject.org].

[9]  Mark Davies, et al. (2009) Climate Change Adaptation, Disaster Risk Reduction and Social Protection, IDS Working Paper, 320. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies [www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/Wp320.pdf].

[10]  Mark Bradbury (1998) Normalising The Crisis in Africa, Disasters, Vol. 22 No 4.

[11]  Stephen Devereux (2009) Why does famine persist in Africa? Food Security, 1(1): 25-35.


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