July 31, 2011
The world has been slow to react to the growing specter of famine in Somalia, despite repeated warnings by the United Nations and aid organizations that millions of people are at risk. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that nearly 4 million Somalis — half the country's population — were in imminent danger of starvation. Unless the international community takes immediate steps to address the crisis, the loss of life there could rival that of the humanitarian emergencies in Sudan in 1998, Ethiopia in 2001 and Niger in 2005.
For weeks, people have been fleeing southern Somalia for refugee camps along the Somali-Kenyan border, which have swollen to nearly half a million people, and smaller camps in Ethiopia. At the Dadaab camp in Kenya, the flow of refugees has reached 1,000 people a day, most of whom arrive exhausted and malnourished after traveling hundreds of miles of foot with only the belongings they can carry. Most of the new arrivals are women and children who are forced to camp out in squalid conditions with minimal access to water, food or medical care. The camp's hospitals are filled with emaciated youngsters for whom doctors hold out little hope of recovery.
Despite the magnitude of the unfolding disaster, no one can claim it was unforeseen. Last year, forecasters warned that dangerously low rainfall and drought in the region could threaten crops and produce massive food shortages. Some scientists have linked Somalia's drought, the country's worst in 20 years, to global warming and climate change.
The problems facing aid workers are compounded by Somalia's long-running civil war, in which militants of the Islamist group al-Shebab, which has close ties to Al-Qaeda, have attacked and killed aid workers and extorted money and supplies from relief organizations in the areas it controls. Last week the group refused to allow the U.N.'s World Food Program, the largest food distribution organization, from operating in large parts of the country, calling its workers spies and saboteurs for Western powers. The WFP has lost 14 relief workers to militant attacks in the last few years.
Somalia has been in a state of anarchy since the collapse of its central government in 1991, and the unrelenting political violence there undoubtedly has caused some in the West to write off the country as an international basket case no amount of foreign assistance can set right. Billions of dollars and decades of effort have failed to stabilize the country, while the growing pirate menace along Somalia's coastline and the threat posed by terrorist groups like al-Shebab have discouraged even the most sympathetic donors. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently felt obliged to chide the European Union in particular for not doing more to help victims of famine.
But the world cannot afford to ignore a humanitarian crisis of the magnitude now facing Somalia, where the continuing flood of refugees threatens not only to destabilize neighboring countries but also strengthen the hand of Islamist extremists bent on exploiting the chaos. The Obama administration is right to be concerned that some food, medicines and other aid intended for civilians might wind up benefiting militant groups, but the danger of that occurring pales beside the likelihood that without a renewed push from the U.S., millions of innocents could perish. We are the only country that can really make a difference at this point, and we should use the opportunity to do whatever we can to help those most in need.
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