A drastic reduction in humanitarian assistance, widespread conflict and drought combined to make the 2011 famine in Somalia the most deadly in the past 25 years, a May 2013 study finds.  Commissioned by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSnet), the study estimates that between October 2010 and April 2012, nearly five percent of the region’s population and 10 percent of its children died because of severe food shortages.  It also noted “that limited access to most of the affected population, resulting from widespread insecurity and operating restrictions imposed by several relief agencies, was a major constraint.” [p. 5] The presence of al-Shabab, a group on the U.S. terrorist list, in famine affected areas made legal restrictions an issue for aid groups.

Between October 2010 and April 2012 the study estimated that 258,000 excess deaths occurred in southern and central Somalia, “of which 52% (133,000) among children under 5 years old.” [p. 8] That represents over 17 percent of children under the age of five. During the main famine period, between May and October 2011, there were more than 20,000 excess deaths per month in southern and central Somalia. [p. 9] To put this in perspective, the report notes that this rate of child deaths is “two to three times the annual amount in all industrialised countries combined.” [p. 10]

Constraints on Humanitarian Assistance as a Factor

“There is consensus that the humanitarian response to the famine was mostly late and insufficient,” the study concluded. [p. 5] It lists the inadequate humanitarian response as one of the contributing factors to the high death rate, saying these impacts “should be viewed as the combined impact of drought, reduced humanitarian assistance, high food prices and civil strife in the affected regions…all in the context of persisting and/or worsening insecurity.”  It then concludes that “This evidence should be used to ensure such deficiencies never occur again in the future.”  [p. 10]

U.S. law prohibits the provision of any support to a terrorist group, including incidental or accidental diversion of resources.  As an article on the study in the LA Times pointed out, U.S. counterterrorism policy played a role in exacerbating the crisis.  It noted that al-Shabaab was listed by the U.S. as terrorist organization in 2008, and that “U.S. counter-terrorism law imposes sanctions on any group found to be offering even indirect assistance to a terrorist group.  Some U.S. and international agencies halted aid deliveries to Shabab-controlled areas, fearing they could be charged with helping a designated terrorist group.”

The U.S. drastically cut back its aid to Somalia also, reducing it by 88 percent from $237 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2011. This included the U.S. government’s suspension of funding to the UN World Food Program (WFP) in December 2009 despite the UN estimating over three million people were at risk of food shortages.  The U.S. refused to issue a General License for charities to provide aid in al-Shabaab controlled areas of Somalia in early 2011, and only partially relaxed restrictions in August of that year, after many deaths had already occurred.

Ken Menkhaus, an expert on Somalia at Davidson College in North Carolina, said the U.S. anti-terror laws had a “chilling effect” on humanitarian organizations that were trying to respond to the crisis in Somalia. “Everyone wanted to get aid in. But local aid diversion was endemic,” he said in a telephone interview to the Los Angeles Times.

Senait Gebregziabher, Oxfam Somalia’s director of operations, told The Guardian the high number of deaths should have been averted. “Famines are not natural phenomena, they are catastrophic political failures. The world was too slow to respond to stark warnings of drought, exacerbated by conflict, in Somalia, and people paid with their lives” said Gebregziabher.

The positive impact of humanitarian response can have is noted in the improvements in food security in Somalia in 2012.  In addition to better rains and crops, the study said “improve access to parts of Somalia (i.e. Mogadishu) and the scale-up of relief wherever access was possible, including by a variety of non-traditional donors and actors, is likely to have made a considerable difference.  Indeed, our model suggests strongly that humanitarian assistance was a critical modulator of the effects of food insecurity….”  [p. 54]

The release of the report comes nearly a month after the U.S. announced that its sanctions on Somalia would continue with no easing of restrictions of humanitarian assistance to the country.