We’ve neglected Somalia

September 17th, 2011

The following article will be published in next week’s Trinity News

At the precise moment that I sat down to write this article, there was no article on The Irish Times website homepage or world news page of that same site about the escalating famine in the Horn of Africa, primarily Southern Somalia.

There was, however, a Somalia-based news item that concerned itself with a Danish family being freed by Somali pirates having been held since February of this year. The New York Times website on the same day was the same – no homepage or world news page article about the famine, but a story on the freed Danes made the editorial cut.

Let there be no mistake about it – the story of the freed hostages is worthy and of great importance, but what is clear is this: the non-death of seven Danish people is more important to us than the real deaths of thousands upon thousands of Somalis every day, most of them children.

One of the ways in which we – potential donors to international aid organisations – manage to convince ourselves that we are powerless to help is by believing the myth that drought is the cause of this famine. This is a falsehood. The causes are almost entirely anthropogenic, caused by human factors such as war, corruption and religious fundamentalism. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest are the causes of famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause as a catalyst of famine. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

Al-Shabab has reached an unsurpassable level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. Until we care enough to try and understand what is going on, this is as sure as the sun rising in the morning.

When one considers that the escalating levels of starvation are almost entirely caused by humans and not by nature, as well as being perpetrated by one group upon others, the situation becomes more like Rwanda in 1994 all over again, with a slow wasting death awaiting victims instead of the point of a machete. This time, however, we do know what is going on and we do have the resources to tackle it, but we just choose not to. We may want to help Somalia and Africa, but we can’t do so without learning about it. We can’t learn about it without demanding news about it. News won’t be published unless we demand it.

What makes Somalia particularly unique is that the West has close to absolutely no economic or strategic use for it. There is no commodity to extract or even a central government to coax, nor is there much of a formal economy to speak of. If Africa is the continent that the rest of the world doesn’t care much for, then Somalia is the country within Africa that nobody cares for. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the place. It can be left to rot and crash.

It must be noted that we cannot blame newspapers, news websites and other media outlets entirely for their lack of coverage. Editorial decisions are usually arrived at after two questions are asked: will I get sued, and will running this story make money? We, the people, are the ones primarily to blame. When a story about a handful of alive Danes is far more important to us than a story about potentially millions of acutely malnourished Somalis, we have reached a very sad and potentially dangerous place.

It should not go unmentioned that, contrary to The Irish Times and New York Times, The Globe and Mail – Canada’ national newspaper of record – had an entire section on the famine linked from the homepage on the same day that the other newspapers carried no news at all on the issue. This meant that after one click, no less than ten articles directly related to the famine were available to readers of that site. There is hope.

  • Andrea Finnegan

    Love this, as Amartya Sen advocates: famines do not occur where ‘good governance’ is in place!!!

  • Hugo

    Too right Andrea!