malnutrition

The over-simplified narrative of the Somali famine.

The recent attention afforded to the Somali famine has mostly infuriated me. It’s not because I don’t care about those who are starving, quite the contrary; it’s more that I am angered with the way that the crisis is being painted in the media. For example:

The way it is so constantly referred to as a “natural disaster”, the result of drought or climate change, or some other ecological problem, as opposed to being primarily a political or socio-economic problem.

The way access to markets, finances, other entitlements and freedom of movement seem to have no bearing on the recent crisis in the slightest, as if at least one third (if not much more) of all food produced worldwide isn’t wasted after production each year and as if there isn’t more than enough food on this planet for every human being to avoid malnutrition.

The way the popular narrative degrades the dignity of those who are suffering, as if the journalists flocking to the refugee camps by the butt-load to snap a shot of the most pathetic-looking, swollen-bellied child, and trying to get the most convenient narratives from the chosen few “poster” women of the famine isn’t incredibly exploitative of their situation. As if the small children who are filmed or captured on camera have a real choice in whether they are branded across the news in the wider world and can easily say no to their own exploitation. As if repeatedly questioning someone in a refugee camp who has just trekked hundreds of miles, under terrible conditions, about their experiences of rape and violence and hardships experienced in their home country in front of their traumatized children, isn’t re-traumatizing for all of them.

The way so many comments on the crisis in the newspapers and forums seem to point directly to a “population problem”, as if the problem of starvation here was simply a Malthusian problem of Somali women having too many babies. As if a typical family of three in North America or Europe doesn’t use at least double the amount of food a Somali family of eight does. As if the mortality rate in the average Somali family of eight will allow all of that family to actually make it to adulthood, old age or to survive pregnancy, war or illness. As if it is so easy to ignore aspects of history that clearly demonstrate that population isn’t the determining factor in famine, for example the situation in the most populous country, India, where between 1800 and 1947 close to 38 million people died from a series of famines when the population level was less than 350 million, and that since that time, when the population has more than tripled now exceeding 1.21 billion people, the amount of deaths from famine has been comparatively non-existent.

The way the world seems to think that handouts are somehow magically going to solve this problem, as if the vast majority of those who are currently starving aren’t still going to starve to death or live with malnutrition for years to come, despite the money that’s now being collected. As if humanitarian or development aid weren’t incredibly problematic to begin with. As if the dumping of surplus grain in the form of “food aid” from donor countries isn’t actually being done to keep their own domestic grain prices low; and as if it is really about feeding the poor and isn’t essentially increasing the problems in the receiving countries instead of actually helping them; undercutting the local farmers, lowering the prices they receive for their own produced goods and discouraging the real development of a local market.  As if these donor countries weren’t spending numerous times more for their shipping costs, dumping these surpluses, than they are spending in agricultural or production assistance to these recipient countries.

The way the dialogue seems to focus only on the aspect of starvation, as if long term malnutrition, which the majority of those now starving have likely faced for years and will likely face for years to come, wasn’t debilitating and detrimental to the development of those who face it. As if those who are now at risk aren’t mostly the same people who have suffered through the last series of droughts and who have been kept barely alive by insufficient feeding programmes for years.

The way many articles have entirely ignored the aspect of war in the country and the lack of an actual functioning government who controls anything more than a few suburb areas in Mogadishu and who continually receives millions in aid with little to no accountability. That the contributions of aid to Somalia have been primarily in emergency humanitarian assistance and not directed in any significant way into long term projects or agricultural projects and that even if they were, that appeals for aid to the country have come up short for many, many years, instead going to more “popular” crises that attract more donors.

The way the crisis is painted as affecting the entire country and the vast majority of Somalis, rather than being restricted to certain regions only. As if the famine were raging in the same manner in the Ethiopian Highlands, Somaliland, Puntland, or the north eastern parts of the country as it is in the southern areas. As if the rains haven’t also failed in other parts Somalia, and parts of both Kenya and Ethiopia, and yet these regions, for some seemingly unknown reason, aren’t facing the same severity of a crisis as others.

The way the Ogaden region in the Ethiopian Lowlands, that is almost entirely populated by Somalis, is likely suffering or has been suffering for some time now in the same manner or worse than those in Somalia, though is almost entirely ignored, as if it hasn’t been fenced off and closed to outsiders for years, as if the population here were non-existent.

The way most neglect to mention the logistics of how this food aid will actually be delivered in an area that has seen the death of countless aid workers in the last several years, as if the World Food Program hasn’t previously stated that the “food supply line to Somalia is effectively broken”. As if the al-Shabaab group who is in control of much of the affected area doesn’t distrust those delivering the aid, regarding them as foreign “spies”.

The way everyone seems to be talking as if this crisis were new, as if the world wasn’t alerted to the fact that mass starvation would be likely in this area for quite some time, and how the UN itself warned in 2008 that one in six were at serious risk of starvation. The way reporters constantly refer to the “swift action” of international organizations to react to the crisis, even though, in reality, most assistance will come too little, too late to actually help most of those who are starving. As if aid agencies and governments haven’t known for almost a year now that the food would run out by now; that they failed to make a real appeal to the public until only after people begin to die in large numbers, even though it will take months for any of the aid currently being collected to actually reach these populations, if they ever even do. As if the US hadn’t severely restricted the UN’s ability to deliver food in Somalia over the past few years, by politicizing the situation and imposing strict conditions, even going so far as to suspend and hold millions of dollars in food aid and is only now, rather hypocritically, calling upon a need to “solve” the problem only after it is really too late.

The way the media ignores how large land lease “land grabs” by foreign governments and companies for the creation of export crops have further exacerbated this problem. As if governments and developing banks encouraging the population to participate in the market economy by buying grain and growing cash crops instead of growing self-sustaining crops didn’t massively deter people from storing excess grain for potentially bad years and make them more vulnerable to rising grain prices. As if the majority of plans for the limited agricultural development being done haven’t stressed the importance of the new “Green Revolution” that is almost completely unaffordable to the poorest of the poor who are most likely to starve, neglecting more self-sustaining agricultural techniques that could actually help those who most need it.

The way the huge spike in global food prices seems to be non-existent to the problem, as if rising grain prices aren’t a big part of the reason people are starving. As if the increasing diversion of grain to the production of biofuels and other non-feed uses and export restrictions weren’t a factor in this crisis.

The way most ignore the fact that the Kenyan government is largely refusing to allow people to cross into northern Kenya and has kept a nearly completely prepared refugee camp able to accommodate almost 40, 000 people empty to deter others from flooding into the country. As if the governments of Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia (what little of it there is), haven’t been marginalizing and discriminating against pastoralists in the region for years, now depicted as “archaic” or “outmoded”, or haven’t been promoting only large-scale farming projects, the expansion of national parks, game reserves and conservation, blocking access to traditional routes to pasture land.

The way the media largely depicts the typical “whites in shining armour” tripe, as if westerners are the only ones capable of “solving” the problems in Somalia.  As if Somalis are perpetual victims and as if there weren’t Somalis and members of the Somali diaspora making a tremendous effort to lessen this crisis themselves.

So what is to be done? Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know what to suggest that will actually make any real difference here. But I do know that this crisis is not going to be solved by simple increases in aid or handouts, as most seem to be calling for. I know that continually painting the crisis in limited terms is only going to lead people to put in place the same “band-aid solutions” for years to come and will only ensure that this type of crisis will happen again and again. If anyone has any positive and concrete suggestions, I’d be very interested to hear them, but personally, I’m at a loss.

I’m sure I’ve missed many other factors with my own fairly simple narrative, and encourage others who have more experience in the area to fill in any significant factors I have missed.

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This week in conflict… September 11- 17th, 2010

World

  • The UN will be having its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Summit in New York city from the 20th to the 22nd of September. They are looking to accelerate the progress towards the MDGs by 2015, review successes, best practices and lessons learned, obstacles and gaps, challenges and opportunities to lead to more “concrete strategies of action”.
  • A new machine was invented to convert used plastic back into oil. The machine is relatively small, and lightweight and could have enormous impact on global waste management.
  • For the first time in 15 years the number of hungry people in the world has declined, however these figures do not include the millions of hungry people in three “emergency” areas of Pakistan, Haiti and the Sahel in Africa and are not significantly lower than previous years. Rising grain, meat and sugar prices are threatening to increase the number of hungry and malnourished in the upcoming year.
  • The number of children who die before reaching the age of five has fallen by a third since 1990, UNICEF reported on Friday. The estimates suggest that 12,000 fewer children are dying each day around the world compared to 1990.

Africa

  • Scheduled run-off elections in Guinea will be delayed following the conviction of the head of the election commission for election fraud, who died on Tuesday in a Paris hospital. The run-off was scheduled to take place September 19th. Outbreaks of violence killed at least one person and injured another 50 as rival political factions clashed on Sunday.
  • Somali police claimed to have foiled a suicide attack by Islamist rebels in Mogadishu on Saturday. Security forces blew out the tires of a petrol tanker and arrested the wounded gunman found with explosives in his bag before he could ram the tanker into the seaport. A senior government minister in Somalia’s separatist region of Somaliland has admitted that a group of rebels have secretly landed along Somaliland shores to fight against the Ethiopian government, a claim that the Ethiopian government adamantly denied. An escalating dispute between the PM and the president could result in the PM being forced from his post. The president later denied the dispute had taken place. Clashes on Thursday between government troops and insurgents around the government buildings killed 15 people and injured at least 50.
  • It appears that Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni will run for a fourth time in next year’s presidential election. Museveni has been in power since 1986 and that he does not want any independent competition. The government issued its Public Order Management Bill which is intended to control public political gatherings. Opposition parties and human rights group claim the law is designed to stifle dissent and intend to challenge it. The government also dismissed the UN draft report’s accusations that it committed war crimes during its operations in the DR Congo in the 1990s. A journalist was beaten to death by an angry mob in the southern town of Rakai after filming an attack by a crowd of angry motorcyclists on a local home, and another journalist was murdered three days later as he walked to work.
  • Senegalese courts issued a new ruling forbidding marabouts (Muslim holy men) from enlisting children to beg on their behalf. Going against decades of tradition, the ruling is said to be a victory for the near 50,000 street children endangered in Senegal. Amnesty International reported that Senegal’s security forces are continuing to torture prisoners, while its ministers of state block investigations into those claims.
  • The Rwandan Army is rumored to be sending new soldiers to neighbouring Congo. This followed several private meetings between Congolese President Kabila and Rwandan President Kagame during Kabila’s three day trip to Rwanda. Following the meeting, Kabila announced that he would suspend all mining from three eastern provinces, with no details of how it would possibly be enforced. Prices have already tanked and experts are concerned about rioting and increasing lawlessness around the mines. Civil society in the Congo are calling for action against harassment following the recent imprisonment, torture, kidnapping and disappearances of several activists. A ceremony marking the destruction of the 100,000th weapon by Mines Advisory Group in the Congo was held in Kinshasa this week and was seen as a step towards positive peace even though violence rages on through much of the country.
  • Mobile phone companies in Mozambique are being accused of bowing to government pressure and suspending their texting services and then lying about it in the wake of the Maputo riots at the beginning of the month. The riots were thought to have been organized through text message.
  • The UN Security Council extended its mandate in Liberia (UNMIL) for another year and authorized the peacekeeping force to provide support to the government through its elections next year.
  • Assassins killed a top anti-graft official in Nigeria on Tuesday. Around 1,000 hoodlums have allegedly been hired to burn down the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission office.
  • Twenty-three constitutional outreach meetings had to be canceled in Zimbabwe after ZANU PF supporters brought guns to disrupt the meetings where contributions are deemed to contradict the party. In other areas, their representatives have simply boycotted the meetings, forcing an abandonment of proceedings under the outreach meeting rules.

Asia

  • Protests continue in Afghanistan, with protesters setting fire to police checkpoints and shops in response to the now withdrawn threat by a US pastor to burn copies of the Qur’an. Two people are said to have been shot and killed during the first day of demonstrations after police opened fire on the protesters. The violent protests continued during the week with dozens of injuries and an unknown number of deaths. NATO forces acknowledged this week that there could have been civilian casualties in an air strike earlier this month that wounded an election candidate that was strongly condemned by President Karzai. Election officials declared that thousands of fake voter registration cards have been found all across Afghanistan for the Saturday parliamentary elections. The Taliban took claim to the murder of two election staff members on Wednesday, while NATO forces are said to have shot an armed protester on Thursday. The Taliban have threatened that they would try to disrupt the poll, urging all Afghanis to boycott the election. On Friday they claimed to have kidnapped 30 campaign workers, elections officials and even a Parliamentary candidate. The UN has evacuated about a third of its permanent workforce over fears of election violence and fraud. The “war on terror” has not had the exact effect on security that was hoped, as this cool graphic shows. The number of attacks each month and travel risks have both increased dramatically.
  • Five militants were killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan near the Afghan border on Sunday and another 10 suspected killed in drone strikes on Tuesday. At least 11 are reported killed in another series of US unmanned drone missile strikes on Wednesday. A journalist was shot dead outside his office after receiving repeated death threats on Tuesday. Gangs torched vehicles and a shop in Karachi following the death of a senior politician in London.
  • North Korea made a surprise gesture of reconciliation with the South this week by proposing that families separated by the six decades of war be allowed to reunite. The proposal has been suggested by the South in the past. Former President Jimmy Carter suggested that North Korea has sent “strong and clear signals” that it will abandon its nuclear weapons programme if the US guarantees it will not attack. The death of two North Korean journalists became public this week. The two died in a prison camp in 2001, while many more are thought to still be held inside in terrible conditions.
  • The Timorese national police force in the eighth district took back its primary policing responsibilities from the UN in the gradual transfer of security functions that has been ongoing since May of 2009.
  • Tajiki security authorities killed at least 20 Taliban fighters in a clash along the Afghani border on Saturday. Officials are concerned with growing Islamic radicalism in the country.
  • Tens of thousands of Muslims marched through Indian Kashmir on Saturday in violent protests injuring at least 20 people. Government and police buildings were set on fire, and an indefinite curfew was re-imposed, but did little to stop the over 300 protesters who stoned the home of the state education minister. More than a dozen people were killed in protests on Monday following a report on an Iranian TV channel about the desecration of the Qur’an in New York on 9/11 and another 18 people were killed on Tuesday after police fired into protesting crowds. At least five more protesters were shot and killed by police on Wednesday as the violence began spreading to new areas. The protesters wounded six soldiers on Thursday night as they attacked government forces with rocks and another two people were shot dead by Indian troops in demonstrations on Friday.
  • Myanmar/Burma’s ruling military claims to have defused a bomb threat aimed at disrupting the upcoming November 7th elections. Observers are concerned that recent incidents might spark wide-spread unrest in the country.
  • Thousands of Russian, Chinese and Kazakh soldiers began two weeks of war games in Kazakhstan on Monday to prepare for regional threats. More than 3,000 troops will take part in the exercise.
  • More than 70 gay rights activists were detained in Nepal on Tuesday after a rally demanding government identification papers for transgendered people. Without papers, these sexual minorities are unable to get a job, enroll in schools or colleges, seek treatment in hospitals, inherit property or travel.
  • A UN backed court in Cambodia formally indicted four surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge on Thursday on charges of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and murder. These cases are said to be more difficult than the recent Duch case, who was sentenced to 19 years in prison for the torture and death of at least 14,000 people.
  • Freedom of expression is being curtailed in Azerbaijan in advance to this year’s elections. Nine NGOs met and conducted a three-day mission to collect testimonies of violations earlier this month.
  • Three soldiers were killed in an ambush in the Philippines on Thursday. The attack was linked to al Qaeda militants.

The Middle East

  • In an ironic case, the Iraqi government has agreed to pay around $400 million to American citizens who were tortured or traumatized by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s. This move is likely to anger many Iraqis who consider themselves the victims of both Saddam and the current US invasion. Amnesty International issued a report saying that tens of thousands of detainees are being held in prisons without trial and are facing physical and psychological abuse or other mistreatment. At least four people were killed in clashes between militants and security forces in northern Iraq on Sunday. Seven Iraqi civilians were killed near Falluja on Wednesday during a raid by American and Iraqi forces while nine Iraqi soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in a separate incident in Mosul.
  • Barack Obama has called on Israel to extend its partial freeze of settlement building on occupied Palestinian lands during the newly-resumed Middle East peace talks, with PM Natanyahu later indicating that it might be possible to limit the scope of future building but refusing to extend the freeze. The Palestinians have made it clear they will walk away from the talks if settlements continue. Air raids and rocket launches continued despite the peace talks, killing at least two Palestinians on Saturday, another three on Sunday, and at least one on Wednesday, with Hamas vowing to carry out attacks in the coming weeks to undermine the “useless” talks. Israeli soldiers killed a local Hamas commander on Friday during a raid on a refugee camp. The UN General Assembly President condemned the desecration of the ancient Muslim cemetery of Mamilla in Jerusalem. The UN has reported that at least 40,000 Palestinian children eligible to enroll in UN schools had to be turned away this year because building materials for school construction have not been approved to enter the area for the past 3 years.
  • Iran has barred two key nuclear inspectors from investigating into the country’s nuclear program. The UN atomic watchdog head voiced “great regret” over the decision. President Ahmadinejad has also called off plans to attend a high-level UN global disarmament meeting next week. A senior Iranian diplomat has defected after resigning from his position in the Finnish embassy, and another defected on Tuesday from his post in Belgium. The diplomat said he stepped down due to the attacks by government forces on protesters during the disputed 2009 elections.
  • Armed militants failed to bomb a key gas pipeline on Monday in Yemen, after their hand grenades fell metres away from the pipeline. It was not yet determined who was behind the attacks.

North and Central America

  • Two religious leaders burned Qur’ans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in Tennessee claiming that the act was an act of love and to defend the US Constitution and the American people. At Ground Zero in New York City, several Qu’rans were desecrated in protest.
  • The US is moving ahead with its plans to sell $60 billion worth of advanced aircraft and other weaponry to Saudi Arabia in what is thought to be the largest US arms deal ever. The Senate has also advanced the New Start arms control treaty with Russia, which would bar each side from deploying more than 1,550 strategic warheads or 700 launchers starting 7 years after ratification.
  • A Jordanian reporter claimed that some of the women who were raped at the US’s Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq were later “honor killed” by their families due the shame this inflicted. Robert Fisk reported that “a very accurate source in Washington” has confirmed “terrible stories of gang rape” by US forces in the prison, including videotape evidence of underage boys being sodomized.
  • The Pentagon scurried to buy up all 10,000 copies of the first printing of Anthony Shaffer’s new book Operation Dark Heart for destruction because it threatens to expose highly embarrassing information about secret operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and how the US missed to opportunity to win the war against the Taliban.
  • Mexican marines captured the alleged leader of one of the country’s top drug cartels on Sunday in a raid. Several drug lords are now surrendering without a fight when surrounded. More than 28,000 people have died in drug violence in the past 3 years. Members of several Mexican political parties attacked 170 Zapatista supporters and expelled them from their homes in retaliation for the construction of an autonomous school.
  • The Cuban government has announced plans to lay of at least half a million state workers by mid-2011 while reducing the restrictions of private enterprise to help them find new employment. Nearly 90% of the Cuban work force has been state-employed for many years.
  • The UN has launched a new operation against rape and gendered violence in Haiti. The head of MINUSTAH voiced his continued concern over the situation of women and children in refugee camps, but noted that a 200-strong police unit maintains a permanent presence in six high risk camps.

South America

  • Peru’s President asked Congress to repeal his two-week old decree that gave virtual amnesty to hundreds accused of atrocities during the civil war amid harsh criticism. Activists are alleging widespread rights abuses during the President’s first term and are seeking to put him on trial along with previous President Fujimori.
  • Peruvian police clashed with protesters on Thursday, resulting in the death of one man and injuring at least 18 others. The protesters opposed an irrigation project that will leave their town without water.

Europe

  • Serbia has indicted nine ex-paramilitaries over the killing of ethnic Albanians during the 1998-9 Kosovo conflict. Serbia, who is also seeking ratification of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, is thought to have taken the move in a step in their process towards EU membership.
  • A clash between ethnic Serbs and Albanians broke out after the Turkish defeat of Serbia in the World Basketball Championships. Two NATO soldiers were injured in the clashes.
  • The Russian government has found a new way to quash dissent, confiscating computers under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software. Dozens of outspoken advocacy groups say they have been raided. Microsoft was quick to respond, changing their policies to prohibit its Russian division from taking part in piracy cases. The government was also quick to shut down an attempted protest outside Moscow City Hall that was protesting against the government.
  • A senior security police officer was gunned down in the Northern Caucasus region of Daghestan, following several attacks from the previous week that killed at least two officers dead and several wounded. At least seven militants were said to have been killed in a separate incident on Sunday and another 10 militants on Monday.
  • The International Court of Justice (ICJ) began hearings on Monday of charges by Georgia of Russian human rights abuses in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Charges were filled by Georgia in 2008 with claims that Russia had violated the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination. Hundreds of protesters gathered in North Ossetia on Wednesday demanding better security after recent violence.
  • Presidential aides in France are charged with violating the law on the secrecy of sources of journalists by using a domestic intelligence agency to identify an informant in the Bettencourt scandal. If true, this would violate freedom of the press in the country. The French Senate also voted almost unanimously to ban face-covering Islamic veils in public, with 246 votes for and just one against. The ban should come into effect in spring of next year. A bomb threat at the Eiffel Tower resulted in the evacuation of approximately 25,000 people, but was later declared unfounded. The French government may also face legal action from the European Union for its expulsion of hundreds of Roma on the basis of discrimination based on ethnic origin.
  • Turkish voters have approved a referendum on changing the constitution, which critics say will give the ruling party more power over the judiciary. Turkish rights groups, seizing on the opportunity of the reforms that would remove previous immunity, immediately launched petitions to try a retired general over his role in a 1980 coup. At least 8 people were killed by a landmine while traveling in a bus in the south-east. The attack has so far been attributed to the Kurdistan Workers Party. Another attack on Friday killed at least 10 people near a taxi stand amidst clashes between police and demonstrators following a funeral for victims of the bus attack.
  • Spanish police have arrested nine people suspected of leading a Basque separatist group Eta. The group is listed as a terrorist group by the European Union and had announced a ceasefire in March of 2006, which was subsequently broken.
  • A Belarusian activist was detained by police and later fined for distributing newspapers with the logo of the opposition Tell the Truth campaign. The campaign encourages Belarusians to speak out about social problems. An opposition leader says he will not run in the upcoming December elections because he believes it will be rigged.
  • A dissident republican group in Northern Ireland has threatened to target bankers and financial institutions on mainland Britain. The group is said to have broke away from the Provisional IRA during peace talks.