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Famine in Somalia: it’s not all about us

From climate change to guilt-tripping about donations, the Somalian famine has been framed by Western concerns.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

Topics World

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Millions of people in Somalia and many in the neighbouring countries of Southern Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya are in dire, desperate need of food. According to UN figures, in Somalia alone about 3.2million require ‘immediate… life-saving assistance’. In total, 11million people just-about-living on the horn of Africa are thought to be affected by both drought and famine.

Yet, despite suffering on an almost unimaginable scale, despite the life-and-death reality of a war-torn country finally shoehorning itself into the hack-packed Western news schedule last month, that reality seems to have been lost. Instead the drought in Somalia has been emptied of social and political depth. It has become, once again, a surface image, one dominated by children’s swollen bellies and bulbous heads, but with sheen enough for us in the West to see our own reflections, our own concerns. And that is the problem. Difficult questions as to why it is happening are not being asked. Like too many problems in Africa, it has become all about us in the West.

It is a self-obsession that comes in many forms. As with the floods in Pakistan last year, there has been a less than edifying display of self-flagellation. What does it say about us, runs the Aid agency-backed cry, that we are giving so little to one region when we have given far more to others in the past? According to the the Disasters and Emergency Committee – a conglomerate of 14 UK aid agencies – UK donations in the first few weeks amounted to £42million. This paled beside the £396million raised after the 2004 Tsunami and the £106million raised for Haiti in 2010. Yet, as the DEC points out, in terms of numbers affected, the 11million people starving in East Africa dwarves the 2million affected by the South Asian Tsunami. ‘What is our problem?’ seems to be the concern.

More farcically, there has also been a minor furore over the decision of British newspaper the Daily Mail – the recipient of more liberal bile than Joseph Stalin – to send the admittedly rather silly columnist Liz Jones to report from Somalia. ‘Who would be the most inappropriate journalist you could think of to send to cover the famine in Somalia?’ asked a Guardian columnist. The correct answer for those frequently puce at the mere thought of the Daily Mail’s typeface is of course, Liz Jones, ‘a narcissistic fashion journalist, a lifelong anorexic, a person who just spent £13,500 on a facelift, and a confessional columnist who charts her obsessions every week in the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine’.

Quite why it matters who submits newspaper copy from Somalia is unclear. Admittedly Jones did write a terrifically self-important column before departing about why, given her role as witness to the Somalian famine, the NHS wouldn’t just give her the jabs she needed and sod the queue, the forms, and all the other stuff that we mere mortals have to deal with. But the problem it seems is not silly Jones’ rudeness. It wasn’t even her sense of entitlement. It seems to have been that she doesn’t fit with what we in the West apparently want from coverage of Africa. Her heart doesn’t bleed enough. Her sheer me, me, me-ness – writ large in her plastic surgery and fashion past – was just too consumption-driven, too acquisitive. Imagine the example she’d set to the natives, sound the critics: we want Angelina Jolie, doe-eyed and damaged, not Jones, mean-eyed and consumerist. Jones is just, well, inappropriate.

Where there has been talk of the causes of the drought, current Western concerns have predominated. ‘A cyclical problem, compounded by climate change’, asserted the TckTck website, a campaigning arm of the Global Campaign for Climate Action. Likewise the director of the UN environment programme Achim Steiner chose to make the Somalian drought a mere episode in the global warming narrative: ‘Clearly the international community – if the scenarios in climate change for the future come true – will face an exponential growth of these kinds of extreme events.’

As our concerns in the West shape the apparent reality of Somalian drought, turning it into a testament to our selfishness, whether it is in the artificially enhanced form of Liz Jones or in the forever approaching spectre of climate change, the questions that really need to be asked, the reality that really needs to be approached, is lost. Because, let’s make one thing clear, there is nothing natural about what is happening in Somalia. That people are dying from a lack of food and water cannot simply be attributed to the climate and our evil, selfish ways in the West.

Rather, the famine’s source lies in the reality of Somalia, its development stunted by years of war. And here the story does involve the West, or rather Western powers. For the seemingly ceaseless state of war and upheaval in Somalia, of lawlessness and impotent government is not a problem native to the dessicating soil of East African soil. There is nothing inevitable about it, nothing rendered inexorable by clan and religion. No, it’s cause lies in the extent to which the people of Somalia have, almost without pause, been little more than a plaything for Western powers for over a hundred years.

It makes for grim reading. From the end of the 19th century, up until the 1960s, Somalia was occupied by a succession of colonial overlords, from the British and the French, through to the Italians. In the 1970s and 1980s, the US took the reins as both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan made it a pawn in in the Cold War. The end of the Cold War offered no respite. Somalia first became a testing ground for what we now know as humanitarian intervention as thousands of troops landed on Somalian beaches in a war against the ‘famine and warlordism’ that had succeeded the toppling of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. (This was to culminate in the deaths of 1,000 Somalis and 18 US troops in the battle in Mogadishu that was to become the tub-thumped inspiration for Ridley Scott’s film Black Hawk Down.) Then, in 2006, Somalia became an outpost in the War on Terror, as the US and Britain-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Southern Somalia, occupied Mogadishu, and in the process, overthrew a burgeoning albeit Islamist source of peace and stability in the form of the Islamic Courts Union. As Brendan O’Neill put it at the time, ‘From colonialism to Cold War intrigue, from humanitarianism to counterterrorism, Somalia has been on the receiving end of every form of Western military intervention over the past century.’

The 2006 invasion destroyed what chance there has of the Somalis being able to sort out their own affairs. In the place of a nascent stability, the past six years have seen the the militant insurgents of Al-Shabaab engaged in a massively brutal conflict with African Union forces. This is not a new fight. While the AU may have replaced the Ethiopians, their backing – both financially and, in the form of drones, militarily – was the same: Western cash.

So in this vicious, relentless conflict, those suffering – the minority clans and the unarmed – do so because of politics, not nature. It’s not the absence of rain that caused Al-Shabaab forces to loot grain stores, menace farmers and tax food markets, it’s their ruthless desire to consolidate their power. What ought to become clear is that the drought and famine in Somalia demands social and political solutions, not feel-good charity. And when it comes to finding these solutions, one thing Somalia’s wretched history ought to tell us is apparent. The less the West is involved, the better.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World

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