The World from Berlin East Africa's 'Cataclysmic Downward Spiral of Suffering'

The UN has started airlifting food to famine-plagued Somalia, a measure that could save thousands of starving children in the divided country. German commentators, however, argue that it is time to address the causes of such a famine and push for at-risk regions to create self-sufficient agricultural industries.

The first airlift of humanitarian food-aid is unloaded after arriving at the Aden Abdulle Osman International Airport in Mogadishu on July 27.
AFP

The first airlift of humanitarian food-aid is unloaded after arriving at the Aden Abdulle Osman International Airport in Mogadishu on July 27.


The United Nations airlifted 10 tons of emergency nutritional supplements to treat starving children into Somali capital Mogadishu on Wednesday as part of a major international effort to provide relief in the worst famine to strike the region in 60 years. It was the first of a number of airlifts planned for the coming weeks, according to UN World Food Program (WFP) officials. One week ago, the UN declared an official famine in parts of Somalia.

"We need to scale up our programs, and especially the nutrition programs in order to avoid children falling into severe malnutrition," UN World Food Program (WFP) spokeswoman Stephanie Savariaud told news agency Reuters.

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Photo Gallery: A Half-Million Children Face Starvation in East Africa
On Thursday, WFP officials said they hoped to expand the airlift program to reach other parts of Somalia soon. The initial relief mission had been delayed because of bureaucratic barriers imposed by Kenyan customs authorities, and Ralf Südhoff of WFP Germany told the public radio station Südwestundfunk, "We can't say in concrete terms when it will happen because we still need permission to take off and land."

Wednesday's airlift of peanut butter-based nutritional paste is expected to provide 3,500 malnourished children with food for a month. The UN has said it cannot reach as many as 2.2 million people needing aid because of instability in Somalia, which is largely controlled by the radical-Islamist group al-Shabab. The militia has so far impeded almost all relief aid deliveries into many regions hardest hit by the drought and famine. Last week the group said it would not allow aid groups to operate in territories it controls.

11 Million Require Food Assistance

WFP estimates that more than 11 million people in the Horn of Africa -- including Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan -- require food assistance as a result of the drought and that nearly half the Somali population, about 3.7 million people, are now in crisis.

Since the start of the famine, tens of thousands of Somalis have been displaced, with many going to Mogadishu in search of food and others crossing the borders into neighboring countries, where massive camps have been erected to deal with the influx and distribute relief supplies. Kenya's Camp Dadaab, initially meant to house 90,000 refugees, has already swollen to 400,000 people. With little water and no toilets in the camp, aid workers are concerned disease could spread and create a second humanitarian catastrophe there.

Criticism of China

In Europe, where a relief effort has been taking shape this week, some politicians are criticizing other countries for their roles in the famine disaster. In Germany, Günter Nooke, who manages relations with Africa for the German government, said China was among the culprits because of its considerable land purchases in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia. There, he said, sales of land had been attractive to a small group of elites, but the property would be more useful to local nationals if it were used to improve the country's own agricultural infrastructure. Nooke said that not everything China is doing in Ethiopia is bad, "but producing food exclusively for export could still lead to major social conflicts in Africa if small farmers are stripped of their land and their basis for making a living." In that regard, he said, the catastrophe is also man-made. He added that Africa already has good conditions for producing sufficient food supplies, with two to three harvests often possible each year.

Nooke, who is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, said it had become clear that small farmers alone could not solve the food problem. The current catastrophe, he said, showed that better irrigation, proper warehousing and the use of more drought-resistant crops are needed. Because these measures are cost-intensive, an industrialized agricultural system must be built in the region. "We want to provide greater international support for that," Nooke said.

Earlier this week, the German government doubled its drought aid from €15 million to €30 million ($43.12 million). An additional €32 million in German money will also be provided through new aid being pledged to Africa by the European Commission in Brussels.

On Thursday, editorials in German newspapers strike an angry tone -- with some critical of the militants in Sudan who are making it nearly impossible to get aid to the people who most need it, and others arguing it is time to promote greater agricultural self-sufficiency in crisis-plagued East Africa.

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Is it a PR action or the start of a decisive aid operation when the UN flies a plane filled with special nourishment to Somalia? It is part of the contradictions of the current hunger catastrophe in the Horn of Africa that both answers -- yes and no -- are correct. Of course there are countless children in Somalia who are close to death. They urgently need food. At the same time, it is also pure PR when a UN World Food Program dispatches a cargo plane to a normal commercial airport using the pompous term 'airlift.' Of course, the UN already watches over Somalia's air space and responsibility for the international Somalia aid has been placed with WFP, and a number of questions should be asked, including why it took so long for the aid to arrive and why it was imported expensively from France when the same special nourishment is produced in neighboring Ethiopia."

"When viewing the daily images of hunger, it is often forgotten that Somalia is actually a major exporter of food. Last year, Somalia sold more than 4 million cattle in the Arab region. Even today, the hungry southern part of the country exports sugar and rice to neighboring countries. At the same time, the country has one of the world's highest rates of malnutrition because the people have a lack of security and investment, capital and reserves for difficult times. When droughts cause breeding cattle to lose weight and value, export revenues also collapse, sinking revenues for herders, while traders have less money to import food. What they do sell at the market is sold at higher prices than normal."

"This sets into motion a cataclysmic downward spiral of suffering. It is one that cannot be reversed through the massive free delivery of food from abroad. To the contrary. The goal of international hunger relief needs to be releasing Somalia's own productive forces. Large international aid actions with airplanes and spectacular distribution efforts, on the other hand, are the wrong approach."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The current discussion reveals a cluelessness that no longer fits with the times. During the 1980s and 1990s, an image of an impoverished, motionless, suffering continent that had been struck by drought catastrophes and despots and was waiting for generous aid from the north prevailed. The public almost immediately associated Ethiopia with Live Aid concerts. But for the most part, the media attention created by these diverse benefit concerts was followed by disinterest. Since then, it is not only the debate over the causes of hunger and poverty in Africa that have become considerably more differentiated, but also the instruments that were further developed in order to prevent them. For nearly 20 years now, an early warning system has been in place for the Horn of Africa whose bells were already rung last fall and again at the start of this year because there had been no rain and a deadly drought became probable. But the problem is complex. Food prices have risen enormously, aid organizations are lacking money and, to make matters worse, the radical-Islamic al-Shabab militia, which controls Somalia, is refusing to pass aid on to the people. Inhumane Islamists are allowing their people to die."

"Yet for all the prophecies of doom, the giant continent has actually been developing positively. Many countries are booming and it appears that they have a bright future ahead of them. Despite this, aid needs to be provided quickly to the regions acutely affected by hunger. But we should also be using political pressure to convince the governments that only a robust and sustainable agriculture can serve as a bulwark against hunger. After all, these problems are often self-made."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The primary cause of the intensification of hardship faced by the Somali people is not an environment that isn't very suitable to habitation or perfidious markets that have seen food prices rise. Their situation is brutally worsened through the terror of their own kin, the Islamic warriors of al-Shabab. These are young men who have joined forces in armed militias that are seeking control over people and territories. They have no central command and are operating on the vague notion of establishing a theocracy. The life of the individual or even of thousands means nothing to them. And they will seek to stamp out anything that puts their power into question. There is no more powerful instrument for having power over people than to secure control over food in the midst of a famine. That's the reason the al-Shabab both fear the international relief aid deliveries and also need them at the same time."

"If one takes a look at the neighboring regions that have been hit just as hard -- Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda or Eritrea, one notices that the deficiencies are large, but the situation isn't as bad as in Somalia. The difference is not the amount of rainfall or food prices, but rather the simple fact that these countries have governments, local authorities and responsible agencies, no matter how weak or autocratic they may be."

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Kenya has been affected by the drought and is having to take in and care for hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. So who wouldn't have had sympathy for the fact that they were overstretched and there were inadequacies. However, there are no mitigating circumstances for the behavior of the Kenyan authorities at the Nairobi airport since Monday. Customs officials temporarily held back emergency food deliveries for small children in Somalia because, they alleged, the import paperwork hadn't been filled out correctly. They initially didn't let the planes in the United Nations air lift take off. … If the drought disaster is as great as the UN and aid organizations have described it, then this was pure bureaucratic harassment from a key country. As if providing food to the starving in Somalia wasn't difficult enough already given the threats from the Islamist militias -- who are playing God in a life and death situation."

-- Daryl Lindsey

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