Entries tagged with “Somalia”.


Development and humanitarian assistance have, over their respective histories, attracted rather substantial literatures. The percentage of that literature I might call “accessible” to the general public is quite small, and much of that popular literature does very little to convey the experience of working in these fields (indeed, very little of the literature in general accomplishes this)*. In 2010, after 13 years of studying development and development issues as an academic, I joined USAID in a policy position. It took only a few days for me to realize that I had no idea what was going on, what motivated decisions within the Agency, and what it actually meant to do development and humanitarian assistance. Nothing in my reading (and I am an academic, so it was a lot of reading) had prepared me for this experience.

In retrospect, it is too bad Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit had not yet been written before I went to USAID, but I suspect that even if it had been I would not have read it (academic snobbery and all). This would have been a mistake.  MMMM presents a compelling, accurate feel for what it is to be a part of the development and humanitarian assistance industry.  While J’s attention to detail is striking (for those of us in the industry, this accuracy can draw us in but also make us grumpy, as more than once I found myself muttering something about a particular meeting or document described in MMMM), he works in a lot of real material into an interesting, compelling read. In short, this book accomplishes something remarkable: I can recommend it to not only to anyone who thinks that humanitarian assistance or development looks like a good career path, but also to anyone who needs a good beach read this summer. Take that, Jeff Sachs, et. al.…

Set in Bur Amina, Ethiopia, MMMM traces J’s protagonist, Mary-Ann, through the twists and turns of delivering humanitarian assistance to refugees near the Ethiopia/Somalia border.  The plot moves Mary-Ann through different positions in her small NGO, accurately conveying how abruptly one’s life and position can change in this world…and also (perhaps inadvertently) demonstrates one of the most important lessons of any career: competence is in much shorter supply than most people realize, and if you are good at your job people will notice. At the same time, J lays out the jockeying of assistance organizations in the context of a humanitarian crisis, and the challenges of balancing the goal of helping the world’s most vulnerable with the institutional imperatives of budgeting, fundraising, and surviving.  Even the most careerist and craven of the characters in MMMM is understandable and relatable – the reader can understand why they are pushing for a particular project or outcome, even as the reader loathes them for it.  Perhaps this is why Soledad Muñiz Nautiyal, in her review of the book, noted “the book presents ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of the aid industry without ever adopting a cynical perspective, and merely acts as an observer of a complex picture”.  This perspective, which permeates MMMM, makes the world of compromise that is humanitarian assistance palatable.  As the book so effectively conveys, too much idealism can render you irrelevant and ineffective.  Some readers may hate this lesson and perspective. If so, you will probably hate the real world of humanitarian assistance.

The reliability of even J’s loathsome characters leads to my next major point about MMMM.  In this book, J addresses my principal critique of his first effort, Disastrous Passion.  In Disastrous Passion, I felt that J created well-rounded, interesting humanitarian assistance characters, but many of the ancillary characters felt like caricatures.  This, perhaps, was a product of J failing to live by the first rule of so many writers: write what you know. In Disastrous Passion, I felt like I knew the characters that worked for the various donors and agencies in Haiti, but the ancillary characters felt a bit like unwanted interlopers.  In MMMM, even the ancillary characters are better-rounded, and I was drawn in by them. I had exactly one moment in the book that I felt was too shallow – when the protagonist has to address a problematic personnel issue (trying to avoid spoilers here), J never explains the motivations of the problematic person. Now, on one had I must say that this reflect reality – sometimes people do things that are inexplicable. It is a frustration the real world hands us. But somehow, in the context of MMMM, this made that character feel a bit shallow – like a plot device that allowed us to see another stressor in Mary-Ann’s life.  And while I did note that the character of Jon is, in many ways, the oracle of J in the narrative, unlike Dave Algoso I did not find this intrusive or slow reading. Instead, I thought these passages tended to crystallize the many plotlines J traces at various points in the book without having to abandon the narrative

I really enjoyed the book. It was a quick read, and one that I found difficult to put down. It was interesting, the plot very believable, the characters relatable, and the lessons (both overt and subtle) worthwhile. Whether or not you want to go into development or humanitarian assistance as a career, if you care about global poverty and want to better understand just how difficult this work really is – and you want to understand the real reasons why it is so difficult – then go get your copy of Missionary, Mercenary, Mystic, Misfit. It is well worth the read.

 

Buy it here:

Find a set of pictures that inspired details from MMMM on the book’s Facebook page here.

 

 

 

 

*I feel compelled here to note that John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is just awful. I can’t speak to the veracity of his firsthand accounts, but his reading of institutional motivations and processes is beyond poor. Seriously, don’t waste your time…

So, given the twitter/blog/social media/whatever response to my post expressing shock at my students’ lack of awareness of the Horn of Africa drought, I did a little follow-up with them today.  This was the first day of real lecture content in the class, and as it happens one of the first examples I hit on (while trying to demonstrate the concept of interdependence – how every part of the world is inextricably linked to other parts of the world, for better or for worse) was the food price spikes of 2008 and 2011 (and the imminent spike coming this fall as a result of the drought that has devastated the US maize crop).  Since we were on food insecurity, I pivoted a bit and decided to just talk to them directly.  A summary, for those of you interested in how the hell a bunch of college students/college-bound high school students could have missed a crisis of this size:

1)   The crisis was horribly branded: I think talking about the Horn of Africa confused the few people who did know something had happened.  When I started casting about (around this time last year, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, starving African babies…) a few students did remember seeing something on the news.  As one student put it, he saw it on a major network, but the anchor wasn’t reporting.  I suspect more of the students were briefly aware of the crisis at the time, but it has since been lost to time because of the sheer volume of calls for help/mentions of crisis to which they are exposed (see point #2).

2)   In general, the students disliked most current “disaster messaging.”  Yes, it grabs their attention…and then it overwhelms them.  First, there are a lot of bad things that happen, and therefore a lot of news stories/PSAs/etc. coming down the line all the time.  They become hard to differentiate, such that students just tune out the PSAs entirely.  Second, the messaging largely seems to be a competition to horrify people even more…but the explanations for the problem are simplistic or, worse, nonexistent.  The students don’t understand why the crisis is happening, and they are turned off by “solutions” that amount to “send me $5 and I will fix it.”  These are young, idealistic, energetic people – this particular constituency has a greater interest in acting directly than many others.  To summarize: screaming “IT’S A DISASTER!!! SEND ME MONEY TO FIX IT!!!” is rarely going to generate deep interest and engagement (and we need both, for a lot of reasons – see below).  Most messaging around the Horn was of this genre, and as a result it quickly receded into the daily noise of news feeds and celebrity weddings.

3)   Students (or at least some students) don’t need to be spoken down to – they can handle hearing that a crisis has complex causes, that it is often difficult to identify anyone who is to blame.  In short, they are looking for the opposite of the FWD campaign, which shied away from the really complex, big causes of the Horn crisis.  Complexity, unto itself, will not scare students off.  Instead, if you can get people to give clear, concise, interesting reviews of the complex causes of the crisis, this group of people will get more engaged.  Think about it – not everyone is into Africa, or into food security, or into relief work.  So when we yell “African famine!”, we are yelling to a small but dedicated fanbase.  If, however, we unpack the causes of the Horn crisis, we find out that we have to address climate change/climate science, global markets, the politics of failed states, the regional geopolitics of East Africa, the workings of the US Government, the international politics of aid, etc., etc.  In short, when we engage complexity, we find there is something that can draw in almost anyone on their terms.  After the conversation with the students today, it seems really clear to me that they would like to be engaged in this manner – stop treating them like apathetic idiots who just don’t/won’t understand.  Why?

  • Crowdsourcing: folks, there is a big world outside the aid and development community, and some of those people actually have interesting ideas.  Maybe those ideas can only address part of one of the many causes of the crisis (i.e. adjusting a market’s function for one commodity in one part of the world), but with a lot of people acting in this manner, it becomes possible to identify a wide range of potential options to address a given crisis/prevent its recurrence.
  • Politics: not one person in my classroom, or really any person anywhere who has a clean bill of mental health, wants to see 100,000 people die for any reason.  I believe that the vast majority of them would support spending tax dollars to prevent this from happening.  But when we fail to explain what needs to be done, in all its complexity, we are turning off a key constituency that can be mobilized and can make its voice heard – they have something that all politicians want. Votes. I can’t guarantee that my students would use those votes to shape policy, but they can’t do this until someone gives them a reasonable, actionable explanation for the events in the world that we would all like to address.

4)   Message management is anathema to social media: let me state the obvious – in the social media era, controlling the message is only possible if the message is so insipid that nobody cares about it at all.  A lot of the Horn messaging was about controlling the message, which is the equivalent of lecturing people via social media.  Ugh.  One student who wrote to me after class argued, more or less, that our role should be a catalyst for social media – we light the fire, but count on the fire to catch and build in its own way once it is started.  Social media that tries to message top-down, instead of evolving with a viral situation, will fail…it will be ignored.  I just realized what I am going to assign my students to do in my absence next week – I am going to make them follow a few official twitter feeds and critique them…oh, the horror!  This will be fun…

5)   Explain why the crisis at hand is important to their self-interest.  Yes, this sounds crass, but self-interest is a broad thing that can be mobilized with decent messages.  To pull an example from my own work, I can sell using development dollars on forest conservation because it has an important impact on the functioning of ecosystems that limit the pace of climate change – climate change that is raising sea levels along the South Carolina coast and producing drought across the state, and eventually will negatively impact the tourism industry in South Carolina (one of the few sectors here that is going well).  The students got that right away.  But nobody really did this for the Horn.  Which is pathetic. Hell, I did an off-the-cuff 2 minute explanation of why they care about the failed state in Somalia in terms of piracy in class today, by referencing the various ways in which piracy is raising shipping costs and therefore commodity prices…which hits their pocketbooks, impacts job growth, etc.  From there, it is easy to get into a reasoned conversation about the relative cost of the development and aid work that could change things in Somalia and end piracy as a viable livelihood versus doing nothing and bearing the cost of piracy.  It is all about entry points and catalysts, folks.

There were several other points that the students made – the one that sticks with me now is one student’s observation there is real experiential distance between their lives and what is happening in a famine that limits their engagement.  While we cannot bring students to a food crisis, we need to start thinking about how to create this experiential engagement.  For me, this happened when I became a parent…I will never again be able to objectively stomach an infant mortality statistic, because I flash to one or more of my children lying dead on the ground and I start to get the shakes.  I’m not sure what would do that for an 18-22 year old, but that sort of visceral connection spurs action.

To summarize: I think I was right in my initial post.  My students’ failure to recall the Horn of Africa crisis was not really their fault.  The messaging went awry in all sorts of ways because it assumed a lot about the audience (they had no interest in the issue, and only wanted simple stories with simple solutions) that was simply wrong.  Not everyone is going to care about every crisis – everyone has limited bandwidth – and so bad messaging just fell back into the everyday noise of social and old media, another data point among many, but nothing new or engaging.  Good messaging won’t make everyone care about every crisis, but it could engage enough of the right people each time to get us different outcomes, and fewer crises in the future.  That alone should make the effort worthwhile – so I guess I am disagreeing with J over at AidSource. Or the hopelessly realistic optimist in me is just winning out again…

Today, I reentered the classroom for the first time in two years.  That’s not completely accurate, actually – I lectured at the Foreign Service Institute several times while I was in DC, and I have a number of lectures, so I am not totally out of practice.  And after you’ve spent over 1000 hours (!!!) in front of a classroom, it really is like riding a bike…

Despite my classroom experience, I was seriously thrown by a moment in class today – I was discussing the different climates we see in East Africa, and mentioned the Horn of Africa famine in an offhand way…then realized there were too many blank stares.  So I asked the class directly how many of them were aware of the famine.  Not a single hand went up – 70 students, no hands.  Now, maybe someone put up a hand in that half-shrug, uncomfortable sort of way and I missed it.  And perhaps a few people had heard of the famine, but had not heard of it as something going on in the Horn of Africa.  But…at best, that is a few people.  Out of 70.

HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN?  Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine – actually, that is a very low estimate, given that we were looking at 20,000-30,000 under-5 deaths in August 2011, and things stayed bad for quite a while after.  This is probably the single biggest human catastrophe since the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 (that killed 230,000 people).

I don’t blame the students.  Honestly.  They are wired in – they get all kinds of media all day long.  The simple fact is that the story of this famine was never sold very well, or very widely.  I thought the PSA campaign around the famine was terrible – a bunch of B-list celebrities, at best, in really dull clips (more on that in a later post).  Media coverage was confused.  Most could not separate drought from famine (which led me to write my most-viewed post ever), attributing the causes completely to the weather.  Others played up the Somalia terrorism angle with al-Shabab, a heterogenous and not terribly effective fundamentalist group in Somalia that decided to turn itself into drone bait by aligning with al-Qaeda.  But the whole story was much more than could be compressed into 2 minutes on the nightly news.

That these students didn’t know about the famine is a lost opportunity – an opportunity to illustrate how complex the world is, how climate change compromises development efforts, how relief work is very hard, and very political, and how there are a hell of a lot of really heroic people doing amazing work that probably saved as many lives as were lost, if not many, many more.  These are the people who will become educated voters, who will shape America’s place in the world through who they elect and what sorts of priorities they express – and they have no idea that America has a tool like FEWS-NET, which now can predict when and where famine will break out months in advance in several African countries…this is an astonishing accomplishment, and the envy of the world.  And if the foreign aid cutters in Congress get their way, it could go away.

Maybe many more people paid attention to the famine on other campuses, in other states…but somehow, I have a feeling that my class was not all that much of an anomaly.  Simply put, we in the relief and development community suck at messaging.  Between the frantic and often disingenuous fundraising that imprint television viewers with the belief that the situation is hopeless, the confused media reporting as everyone looks for their unique angle, and the near-total failure of messaging from the donor institutions, it is no wonder my students were clueless – hell, they almost certainly knew about the famine, at least in passing, but the completely disjointed storytelling probably prevented any meaningful understanding of the causes of the events or how to address these causes and their impacts.

I have no idea how to fix this, but somebody has to fix this. It is too important to be lamented and then ignored in favor of “doing the work” of development and relief.  Messaging is the work of development and relief – telling the story of what we do, why it needs to be done, and how we could do less of it in the future if we just addressed some root causes now is fundamental to getting the societal buy-in we need to do our jobs right.  Somebody do this right.  I can only reach 70 people at a time…

Chris Albon copied me on a retweet today from World Concern that said:

A beautiful sight: things growing in #Somalia. This is what’s possible in the #HornofAfricatwitpic.com/7c8y24

For those not inclined to click the link, it went to this picture:

I have mixed feelings about this tweet and this picture.  On one hand, it expresses what I am sure is genuine relief from an organization that is concerned with the well-being of people living in the Horn of Africa.  On the other hand, the phrase “this is what is possible” suggests that this does not usually happen . . . except, of course, now we are in the Dayr, the October to December rainy season.  Though the Dayr is the shortest rainy season in this part of the world, wet fields and new growth do in fact usually happen right about now.  Further, the phrase “things growing in Somalia” suggests that nothing was growing before.  This was not the case – things have been growing, even in famine-struck parts of southern Somalia.  Not enough has been growing in some places, and this shortage has been compounded by all sorts of political challenges that have created a widespread problem.  Finally, there is a bit of tone to this – as if we are out of the woods in the Horn.  Well, maybe – but it will be months until a real harvest comes in, and much longer than that before accountable governance and functioning markets return, so we have a ways to go.  And given that this famine was not caused by drought (the drought exacerbated other underlying factors), the fact that we are having trouble addressing those underlying factors means the next drought (and there will be another one relatively soon) may create a very similar set of circumstances and challenges.

In summary, I believe in hope.  That is why I call myself an optimist.  But at the same time, we have to be careful about conflating hope with triumph . . . which is why I call myself a hopelessly realistic optimist.

 

 

 

A number of folks have contacted me asking for a post that discusses how we might address the rapidly worsening famine in the Horn of Africa. In short, folks want to know what is being done, and what they can do, both in terms of the immediate famine and to prevent this from happening again.

First, in addressing the acute situation right now: please understand that aid agencies are moving as fast as they possibly can where they possibly can. There are a lot of challenges in southern Somalia, and these political-logistical hurdles matter greatly because the only remedy for the immediate situation is massive relief efforts to address the acute food insecurity in the area. There are complex logistics behind where those supplies might come from. That said, agencies are already moving to preposition aid materials as best they can.

If you want to help with the immediate relief effort, send money. Yes, money. Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. It’s hard and expensive to deliver, and usually the donation of material goods just screws up local economies, making recovery from the crisis much harder and prolonged. Look into the groups, such as the Red Cross and the World Food Program, that are on the ground delivering aid. Examine their philosophies and programs, and donate to those you can agree with. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research before donating. Oh, and please, please stay the hell out of the Horn of Africa, as you’ll just get in the way of highly trained, experienced people who are working under enough strain. I will make an exception for those with experience in emergency relief work – feel free to work through your networks to see if you are needed. If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.

The question of how we will prevent the next famine is an open one. In my personal opinion (which, incidentally, counts for exactly nothing right now), addressing the causes of this famine, and the continuing sources of insecurity in this region, are going to require a rather different approach to development than that we have taken to this point. In my book (Delivering Development – hence the title of the post) I argue that part of the reason that development programs don’t end up solving the challenges that lead to things like famine is because we fundamentally misunderstand how development and globalization work. We are going to have to step back and move beyond technical fixes to particular challenges, and start to think about development as a catalyst for change. This means thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region, and how our resources might be used to initiate processes that bring those changes about. As I keep telling my students, there is no such thing as a purely technical, apolitical development intervention. Even putting a borehole in a village invokes local politics – who gathered the water before? Who gathers it now? Who can access the borehole, and who cannot? If the borehole has resulted in the creation of free time for whoever is responsible for water collection, what do they do with that free time? The answers to these questions and dozens of others will vary from place to place, but they shape the outcome of that borehole.

At the same time, such a process requires redefining the “we” in the sentence “thinking broadly about what changes we want to see in the region . . .,” because it really doesn’t matter what people, living in the United States or anywhere else outside the Horn of Africa, want to see in the region. It’s not their region. Instead, this “we” is going to have to emerge from a real partnership between those who live in the Horn of Africa, their governments, and the aid agencies with the resources to make particular programs and projects happen. For example, we are going to have to use our considerable science and technology capacity to really explore the potential of mobile communications as a source of rapidly-updated, geolocatable information about conditions on the ground to which people are responding with their livelihoods strategies. However, this technology and data will only be useful if it is interpreted into programs in concert with the sources of that data: people who are already managing tremendous challenges with few resources. Information about rainfall is just a data point, until we place it into social context – whose crops are most impacted by the absence/overabundance of water? Whose boreholes will dry up first? Whose cattle will be the first to die off? You can see how even changes in rainfall are nothing more than catalysts for local social process, as the answers to these latter questions will vary dramatically, but in the context of trying to understand how things will play out, they are far, far more important than simple biophysical measures of the environment (or quantitative analyses of the economy, for that matter).

In other words, I think that any effort to really address the next famine before it happens is going to be long and extraordinarily involved – and is going to require the help of agencies, implementing partners, academics, affected governments, and the people on the ground living through these challenges. It sounds utopian . . . but it is not. It is necessary. To end up doing the Horn of Africa famine dance again in a few years for lack of ambition, or because of an unwillingness to take a hard look at how we think about development and how it does not work, is an outcome I cannot accept. We will be judged by history for how we respond (if you have doubts, feel free to read Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts and look at how the British come off).



After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts.  It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine.  For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security.  The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.

This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does.  But it is not the most important thing.  However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward.  Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days.  Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change.  So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South.  It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.

On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis.  Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change.  Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human.  We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest.  The bad news: Humans caused this.  The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.



We continue to scramble here – believe me, we are scrambling – the sheer volume of work taking place is staggering.  In the meantime, please understand that as bad as things are at the moment, the relief effort MUST be done right because a) things are about to get much worse and b) they will stay worse, at least until December.  We are trying not to sacrifice productive efforts to address the next 3-5 months in this region.  To illustrate, two maps.  The first is a map of current conditions:

As you can see, the two affected areas in southern Somalia (the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle) are highlighted.  These are currently the only places where we have hit levels of suffering high enough to be labeled famine.  Everywhere labeled “emergency” is pretty dire, but not a famine.  Unfortunately, this situation has acquired momentum – as FEWS-NET summarizes:

The total failure of the October-December Deyr rains (secondary season) and the poor performance of the April-June Gu rains (primary season) have resulted in crop failure, reduced labor demand, poor livestock body conditions, and excess animal mortality.  The resulting decline in cereal availability and ongoing trade restrictions have subsequently pushed local cereal prices to record levels and substantially reduced household purchasing power in all livelihood zones.

In other words, there is little local food available, no real jobs to earn money to buy imported food, and the livestock are dying, meaning livestock owners cannot sell them off for food (and they are not so great for eating once they get emaciated enough to die).  This means that the resources people normally use to address challenges such as we are seeing in Somalia right now are being drawn down very, very rapidly – they are running out of things to sell, and therefore things to eat.  On top of all of this, we cannot get in to these areas with our aid – so we cannot do anything, at the moment, to stop this backslide.  The result is reflected in this map:

This reflects FEWS-NET’s projections for the outcomes of this backslide in August/September.  As you can see, all of southern Somalia will soon fall into famine conditions.  If we cannot get in there before then, our interventions will not be as effective as they could be . . . it is much easier to fight a small fire than to put out a burning house.

An interesting thing to note from these maps (I will post on this at length soon) – they show the importance of development.  Where we could do development work (Ethiopia and Kenya), we do not have famine.  Yes, things are dire, but nowhere near as dire as in Somalia, where we have not been able to work for two decades.  The fact that things are dire in Kenya and Ethiopia means that development doesn’t work well enough . . . but it does work, at least a little.



As of 10am Nairobi time today, the United States Government, along with the UN, is acknowledging the presence of famine in southern Somalia.  This is the first declaration of famine in twenty-odd years, reflecting the fairly high bar for human suffering that has to be crossed before an official declaration can be made.

The declaration is complex.  The full text of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) statement is here.  But to summarize:

  • a famine is currently ongoing in two areas of southern Somalia: the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle
  • A humanitarian emergency currently exists across all other regions of the south, and current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. As a result, famine is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming 1‐2 months
  • FEWS-NET estimates 3.7 million people are in crisis nationwide; among these 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance (2.8 million in the south).
  • FEWS-NET projections suggest that assistance needs will remain extremely high through at least December 2011

I think it is important to review what the currently understood conditions on the ground are right now:

  • The crude death rate (simple measure of the number of deaths) has surpassed 2/10,000/day in two areas (Bakool agropastoral, and all of Lower Shabelle).
  • The under 5 death rate has surpassed 4/10,000/day in all areas of the south where data is available, peaking at 20/10,000/day in Riverine areas of Lower Shabelle.  These numbers are horrific.
  • The prevalence of global acute malnutrition (GAM) exceeds 38 percent in 9 of the 11 areas where recent survey data is available – we consider 15% to be an emergency threshold.  Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) exceeds 14 percent in these areas – and the emergency threshold here is 2-4%.

The projections going forward are not pretty.  If, as FEWS-NET projects, we have famine conditions in play across all of Southern Somalia, historical death rates suggest we could be talking about mortality rates somewhere in the range of 2500 deaths a day at some point in August (though this is a high estimate, and a minimum number would be more in line with 700 deaths a day).  I have no idea what percentage of these deaths will be children, but given the extremely elevated under-5 death rates (2X to 10X the global crude death rate), we can assume that the answer is “a hell of a lot.”

The causes of the famine are complex, and FEWS NET reviews them in the link above.

We are trying – and we are all frustrated at how slowly our response is moving.  FEWS-NET’s efforts have been herculean, from data collection (see the picture below) to the organization of reports and data – I am seeing emails from these guys at 3am.  I was impressed with them before I got here.  I am even more impressed with them now.  FEWS is just one part of the equation, though. There are a lot of people who are not sleeping right now, and even more who have dropped everything else they are doing to support this effort. We are trying.

Measuring arm circumference for a nutrition survey in Southern Somalia, July 2011

Please follow developments at FEWS-NET’s site for this emergency here.  There is no better resource on this anywhere.



So, according to NPR Iraq has now set the record for the longest time after a parliamentary election without a government.  For those unfamiliar, Iraq operates under a democratic system that awards seats in parliament by percentage of the vote, and they’ve got several political parties.  The end result?  Nobody has a majority, and at this point nobody seems to be able to cobble together a coalition of enough parties to get a majority and form a government.  Man, you really have to dislike the other guy when you more or less give up power rather than partner with them.

But this is not the sweeping case that the title of the article, “Iraq Breaks World Record for Length of Time Without a Government,” suggests.  By any reasonable standard, the contemporary record has to go to Somalia, which has been operating without anything resembling a real national government since . . . 1991. Yep, I graduated from high school right about the same time Somalia lost its government.  Current college freshmen and sophomores have never lived in a world where Somalia had a national government.  So why no mention of Somalia?  I mean, even if you count the transitional government (put in place in 2004), they went 13 years without a government.  Well, they are disqualified because they are not a parliamentary democracy (turns out Iraq’s record is pretty narrow, after all).  It’s too bad Somalia is out of this competition, though , because it is an amazing case of state failure in the modern world.  The transitional government appears to control, at best, a few city blocks in Mogadishu.  Seriously – that’s not a hyperbolic statement.  They literally control a few blocks.  Sometimes.  Er, that does not count as a national government, people.

Somalia is lines on a map and a bustling informal economy that seems to float a stable national currency – despite lacking a central bank or, as I mentioned above, A GOVERNMENT.  (Economists hate that.  A lot.)  That’s about it.  Somalia is the hole in the map, the one place in the world where there is really no effective control of the territory of the country by anything resembling a state.  Sure, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and many in Asia, contain territory over which they have very little, if any, control – but those tend to be little spaces within countries.  Somalia is basically a giant sovereignty hole, with a tiny pocket of control.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this these days, as I think the connection between the state and local communities is probably the central governance question for development agencies in places like sub-Saharan Africa.  Simply put, in much of SSA, the only legitimate governance (that is, governance that people feel bought into, and believe in) is pretty local, and vested in land tenure (those with control over access to land tend to be in charge, since so many people need land to farm and make a living).  Development agencies, on the other hand, tend to work with national governments and generally avoid dealing with “traditional” or “informal” modes of governance, such as those seen at the local level.  The result is a disconnect between a lot of development planning and programming and the reality of life on the ground in many countries – we do our planning and programming through a state that is simply unable to represent the needs of its people effectively, and even if it could it has no means of actually carrying out development planning in a meaningful way.  Yet some folks persist in worrying about how to write legislation that would lead to effective adaptation planning . . . which completely misses the point.  You can write all the laws you want, but if nobody can enforce them and the citizenry don’t see any reason to pay attention to them or any other governmental activity, all you are doing is killing time and trees.

In these situations, we’re looking for governance in the wrong places.  Hell, the people in Somalia are quite vulnerable – to drought, violence, disease, etc.  But they are not all dead, which means they have organized into structures that provide food, shelter, clothing and other goods in an informal way – there is governance here, but not from the state.  I’m not going to valorize much of that governance, as it is rooted almost completely in violence and physical force without respect for the needs of the wider population, but the point is that this governance has found its own form of legitimacy that works, for better or for worse, much better than the pointless national government that the rest of the world seems to want to prop up so they can go on with the charade of working with another national government.