Rebeca Grynspan talks about the humanitarian crisis in Somalia with The Star news paper in Malaysia

Jul 24, 2011

Hunger gnaws at Somalians


The combination of drought, war and high food prices have brought the spectre of death across the Horn of Africa.

THE skies are merciless over the Horn of Africa where rain has not fallen in the past two years, leaving a parched earth where 11 million people and their livestock are facing starvation in the worst drought in 60 years.

Already tens of thousands of Somalis have died as a result of malnutrition-related causes, the majority of whom are children, in recent months.

Every day, thousands of Somalis trek for hundreds of miles to make their way to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia in desperate search for food and water.

As they trek through arid land, thousands die along the way, their bodies succumbing to the hunger that gnaws at their being.

Mothers watch their children die. Children are orphaned as their parents die. The survivors are too weak to bury the dead.

The combination of drought, war and high food prices have brought the spectre of death across the Horn of Africa.

“Before, we used to have this drought once every decade. But now we have it every other year in the last four years,” says Rebecca Grynspan, associate administrator of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in an interview with Sunday Star.

Grynspan was in town last week on a three-day visit to strengthen ties and establish the UNDP global service centre on International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) with the Malaysian government. It will be based in Cyberjaya.

The food shortages facing the Horn of Africa covers Somalia, which is the worst hit, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Since the start of this year, over 166,000 Somalis have fled the country to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, trekking hundreds of miles by foot, dying along the way to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.

“We don’t have time. The tragedy is unfolding. The situation can worsen,” says Grynspan, the former vice-president of Costa Rica.

The crisis could not have come at a worse time.

The UN’s largest donors, the United States and Europe, are struggling with weak economies, overstretched budgets and a huge debt crisis in Greece which threaten to spread to other parts of the EU.

The international community is suffering from donors’ fatigue as scores of massive natural disasters, including Japan’s killer tsunami, have hit several countries in recent times.

“They (aid agencies) need US$1.6bil (RM4.8bil), that is the appeal. They are still short of US$780mil (RM2.34bil) of that appeal,” says Grynspan, a former economist.

“We have no right to be fatigued when it’s a question of life and death. We have to save lives. Food aid is a decision between life and death.”

Last Wednesday, the United Nations declared famine in two regions in southern Somalia where 3.7 million people, almost half the country’s population, are in dire need of food and other humanitarian assistance.

Famine is declared when more than two people per 10,000 die per day, malnutrition exceeds 30% in children under five years, and people are unable to access food and other basic necessities across an entire region, according to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef).

The last time a famine was declared in Somalia was in 1992 when more than 300,000 Somalis were estimated to have died from starvation, disease and war.

The greatest tragedy of Somalia is to witness the return of hunger which is killing thousands and displacing millions.

That history should repeat itself in a space of 19 years is testimony to the ravages of war and the destructive forces of climate change.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991.

The country has been wracked with fighting ever since.

The southern region, the worst affected area, is under the control of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab Islamist insurgents. Al-Shabaab also controls pockets of the capital Mogadishu and swathes of central Somalia.

Al-Shabaab expelled foreign aid groups almost two years ago, accusing them of being Western spies and Christian crusaders.

The World Food Programme (WFP) withdrew from al-Shabaab-controlled areas in early 2010, citing threats to the lives of UN staff, the imposition of informal taxes and demands that no female staff there work for the agency.

The inability of food agencies to work in the region since early 2010 has prevented the UN from reaching the very hungry, especially children, and has contributed to the current crisis, says the UN in a statement.

Earlier in the month, al-Shabaab said it was allowing foreign aid agencies, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, back into Somalia as long as they had no “hidden agenda”.

But on Friday, the BBC reported that al-Shabaab has denied lifting its ban on Western aid agencies and said UN reports of famine are “sheer propaganda”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon made a plea for help last Thursday. “As a human family, these stories shock us. We ask: How is this happening again? After all, the world has enough food. And yes, economic times are hard.

“Yet, since time immemorial, amid even the worst austerity, the compassionate impulse to help our fellow human beings have never wavered. That is why I reach out today ... to sound the alarm and to call on the world’s people to help Somalia in this moment of greatest need.”

While the current crisis calls for immediate emergency food and humanitarian aid, Grynspan says there is a need to address long-term issues to reduce the possibilities of such a crisis from recurring.

“We have to find some ways to address the underlying causes of this food insecurity. You have to get back to the question of climate change and peace,” says Grynspan.

“In Somalia, you have the dysfunctionality of the state, the whole problem of the absence of a state and conflict,” she says.

“Then there is the question of developing drought-resistant crops and agriculture, the question of small-holding farmers,” says Grynspan.

“We need to put into place a mechanism to add to the sustainability, the resilience of the response in the long term.”

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