Update on East Africa and the Famine

On Friday, the number of famine zones was cut in half, as U.S. and U.N. food agencies said aid had reduced death rates due to malnutrition. In spite of this good news, 250 million Somalis are facing starvation largely because military battles are preventing food deliveries. The famine in Somalia is reported to be the worst in the world as well as the worst in the Horn of Africa since the region's 1991-92 famine.

International aid effort has been credited with helping to decrease the food shortage. The U.S. and U.N. food agencies downgraded the famine rating in three areas of Somalia to emergency status. However, there are three other areas, including the refugee communities of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, that still remain in the famine zone. In Mogadishu, the crisis is far from over as the high mortality rates among children are rising. The conflicts in Somalia are continuing to slow relief efforts because of the hundreds of Kenyan troops that moved into Somalia to fight the Al Qaeda-supporting group. The combat ultimately suspended aid to 27,000 people in Somalia's lower and middle Juba regions.

Substantial aid has been provided since July when the famine was first announced and according to The U.N. children's agency "thousands of children's lives have been saved thanks to international donations." However, the UNICEF representative to Somalia, Sikander Khan, said children are still in "imminent danger." The food situation has improved, but the crisis is nowhere near over.

While hundreds of thousands of Somalis flee to the Ethiopian border to find humanitarian aid, the Ethiopian government has also been under scrutiny for its own food security program. An Ethiopian official has strongly rejected accusations that the government deliberately excludes opposition supporters from its food safety net program. Tadesse Bekele, Deputy head of food security and early warning systems, insisted that the productive safety net program (PSNP), which provides food and cash to vulnerable families for work on public projects, worked for the benefit of all Ethiopians regardless of their political affiliations.

These allegations began last year when Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical report of the Ethiopian government, accusing it of excluding opposition supporters from the safety net program, thereby restricting food aid to particular individuals. Pledges came in strong when Ethiopia launched its drought appeal in July with the UK being one of the first to step in and contribute roughly $60 million to the World Food Program. Bekele attributes the generous international response to Ethiopia because he says "it had credible and transparent systems in place." Ted Chaiban, the representative of Unicef, the UN children's agency in Ethiopia, agrees that if Ethiopia did not have its food security systems in place, the situation would have been much worse.

Movements made by the Ethiopian government are being reported worldwide for quite a few reasons. Ethiopian troops may join the war in Somalia against Al Qaeda linked insurgents. The big question is: how much relief will this actually bring? The fear is that this will continue to prevent food aid to reach war-ravaged Somalia. CBS news reports that "If Ethiopian troops cross into Somalia in substantial numbers, it would further stretch the Islamist al-Shabab militia by opening a third front." Additionally, it could also hand the Islamists a propaganda victory because Ethiopian forces are wildly unpopular in Somalia.

The U.N. and U.S. agencies said earlier this year that 13 million people across the Horn of Africa were in need of emergency assistance and now the two agencies said the population in need of aid in Somalia is currently around 4 million people. These groups also said famine would persist at least through December in the Mogadishu and Afgoye refugee camps and in the Middle Shabelle region predominantly due to military battles.

Photo: IRIN Photos 

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