Somalia – a future beyond famine

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Starving children stare at us from newspaper pages every day now in wide-eyed, mute appeal. Somalia is again in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, the world's largest at this time. When we visited the region in the last weeks, we were both shocked by the suffering and impressed by the resilience of the Somalis in the face of the worst hardships imaginable.

That drought is the immediate cause of the famine is not in doubt. But the backdrop to a disaster of this scale is always more complex: almost 20 years of violence, decades of abject poverty, weak governance and general state failure. On many occasions the international community has tried to help bring peace or at least ensure the survival and livelihood of the millions of Somalis who live in the shadow of permanent crisis. It has not been easy to deliver assistance: in the past two year 47 humanitarian workers have been killed in Somalia and 35 abducted by militants, who had also barred 18 humanitarian organisations from wide parts of the country.

The European Union has been among those who have not been discouraged and who have kept faith with the belief that Somalia does not have to be a failed state which exports terrorists, instability and refugees. For years now we have supported the Somali people: we provide food, shelter and medical care to the 200,000 Somali refugees in Yemen and the 500,000 in Ethiopia and Kenya; we also help inside Somalia, wherever this is possible, with food aid and nutrition assistance, with water and sanitation provision, with measures to safeguard the fragile livelihoods of herders and farmers, with assistance for building schools, hospitals and strengthening state institutions, with funding for international peacekeepers.

Our support is more relevant than ever today. Half of Somalia's population is in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, the UN has declared famine and tens of thousands of people (mostly children) have perished in the last few months. Hundreds of thousands more are fleeing the violence and hunger into neighboring countries, which themselves are suffering from the drought.

This is just the latest in a decades-long cycle of humanitarian crises in Somalia, each more protracted and more murderous than the one before, each deepening serious problems like terrorism and malnutrition, extremism and piracy. To break this cycle and preventing the recurrence of a new disaster a few years down the line, we must continue to address under-development and the other root causes of Somalia's problems.

Europe is acting now: our humanitarian support for Somalia is well over 100 million EUR, helping the people who need aid today. But we have to also think of how to help their children tomorrow. To achieve this, the first priority is to bring stability, which diminishes disaster risks and improve resilience. We are seeing the evidence in the autonomous region of Somaliland, where Europe's investment in development, institutional improvement and disaster risk reduction is paying off, ensuring that the drought is biting far less and malnutrition rates are half those in Somalia. Now the challenge is to make these positive practices spread out across Somalia. We are working to enhance governance, education, economic development and food security with 212 million EUR in development aid until the end of 2013 – assistance which we will step up with a further 175 million EUR over the next three years.

But to ensure that drought does not turn into famine, disaster prevention and resilience policies need to be better integrated into development thinking. There is clearly great scope for such investment in Africa, where the double impact of climate change and population growth makes every drought more protracted and more damaging.

To help Somalia build its disaster resilience, the EU aid agency is implementing dozens of projects which support rural incomes, help herders and farmers retain and improve their yields, improve infrastructure and reduce food insecurity. Close to two million farmers and shepherds benefit directly from these projects. There are two million Somalis who, thanks to our support, are not being added to the grim statistics of the starving and the dying from the current food crisis.

This is an encouraging sign – and we will continue to respond to the challenge in Somalia, supporting its people and investing in their resilience to disasters – in the hope that that the  starving children we see and read about are the last generation of Somalis to ever know hunger and war.

The authors of this op-ed are Commissioners Kristalina Georgieva and Andris Piebalgs.

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