Q&A: The causes of the Somalia famine

The famine is a result of a lack of governance and direct human actions which have deprived millions of people access to food, Dr Tanya Lyons told SBS.

While it is true that droughts are an act of nature, there is nothing "natural" about the resulting famine in Somalia, an expert told SBS.

Dr Tanya Lyons is a Senior Lecturer at the School of International Studies at Flinders University in Adeialde, SA. She is also the editor of the Australasian Review of African Studies. SBS asked her to explain the causes of the Somalia famine.

"The biggest cause of the Somalia famine is the failure of the state to protect its citizens. Twenty years ago we saw a famine unfold and we saw a failure of the international community to intervene effectively to protect these vulnerable people who didn't have a government to look after them.

Their competing plans, factions and war lords were all competing with each other, competing for scarce resources and they are unable to effectively provide any services or support for the people in that country. A lot of people fled Somalia then. A lot of people became refugees in other countries.

So, do the roots of this famine go a long way back in history?

It could be argued that it all stems from the colonial days with Britain and Italy forming protectorates in those areas. Back in 1960, they got their independence but with the country continually being affected by droughts, these continually turned into famines because they didn't have systems and processes in place to protect the security of their people.

In the last 20 years, after the disastrous US-led intervention, and after they withdrew from the country in the early 1990s, having completely failed in their tasks of setting a secure state and enabling the vulnerable people in being given food, it has been a constant cycle of intervention where humanitarian aid and food relief have been brought in only at the will of local war lords or clans that still have this kind of authority at the end of the rifle to let the food come to the people.

So it is only at the will of war lords that the people can get hold of food relief if they need it. The whole country is dependent on this foreign humanitarian aid and it's just that cycle of dependence.

What role did Al Shabab play in creating this crisis?

Of course thrown into the mix is the Al Shabab terrorist organisation, which has connections with al Qaeda, and the US played a role in trying to get rid of them and have some power over the country. Now there is an interim western-backed government in place but unfortunately they don't hold authority over the country, nor any legitimacy.

Al Shabab has been competing to get power to install Islamic law across the country. The US has been using that political situation in trying to install a pro-democracy government, so they don't want humanitarian aid to go to support terrorist groups. So they haven't been providing that humanitarian aid in the lead up to the drought and to prevent the famine.

A lot of shipments of food aid will get into the system and will go in the hands of terrorist organisations and they will use it in the same way that Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe used food aid a couple of years ago to gain the support of the people in rural areas. They will use aid make it look like they are the one helping the people in need to get the votes and the support of the local communities.

There are also foreign economic interests in Somalia -- for example four major US oil companies are operating there.

I would say Somalia is the most complex country in the world. The reason it's so important is the Gulf of Aden and the US has been trying at least to put a pro-democracy government and make it work because they need to get in and pass through the Gulf of Aden unaffected by the pirates.

It is no surprise to me that there is oil interest in that region and it's the same in Sudan as well and I am sure that that would be another reason why Americans are so interested in getting a government that can talk to and work with and get rid of the power of Al Shabab who are more likely to do business with competing countries like China or other countries that are also interested in the oil on the ground or in the ocean off Somalia. This is a typical scenario in the African continent since independence in the 1960s.

Was this crisis brought about also by corruption?

I think it's more the weakness and failure of a state rather than straightforward corruption.

There's certainly corruption in the sense that well meaning humanitarian aid that is given to the country would be redeployed to support troops or insurgent troops in that region. To that extent it's difficult for the international community to feel confident that they can make a difference to these vulnerable people suffering.

Plus, there is always the issue that the local communities may distrust or not trust aid workers thinking they may be spied working for foreign government and they may be targeted. Because there is that lack or trust in the international community.

And it's only recently that Al Shabab made an agreement with the World Food Program to allow food to come in to help people in the communities that they have control over to access some of this food aid, realising that it may win them favours rather than getting aid workers to leave.

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