In August, in the United States and Europe, most people are planning their summer vacations.
In Somalia a typical August trip is for a woman to leave her home. In most cases it will be the first trip she has made in her life. With the drought at its peak the family’s crops have not grown. With no money or grain to feed their livestock the animals have died. The only option left her is to take her children and walk to a refugee camp. It could take days and some of her children may not make it.
Five regions of Somalia are now officially declared to be suffering from famine. The United Nations expects the famine to spread across all regions. With Somalia currently having malnutrition rates at more than 50 percent it is now the highest malnutrition level in the world. In addition the food crisis in the Horn of Africa is the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen. There are people arriving in refugee camps at an intolerable rate. They are tired, weak, malnourished. Almost half the children arriving at the camps from southern Somalia are malnourished, and increasing numbers of children are reported to be on the verge of death as they reach refugee camps. Many die along the way.
The contrast in mortality rates between Somalia and a country like the United States is staggering.
In Somalia the probability of a fifteen year old male dying before reaching the age of sixty is 408 per 1000. In the United States it is 144 per 1000.
In Somalia the probability of a fifteen year old female dying before reaching the age of sixty is 356 per 1000. In the United States it is 83 per 1000.
Even more heartbreaking is the statistics for children.
In Somalia the number of infants dying before reaching the age of one is 133 per 1000. The probability that a newborn baby will reach the age of five is 225 per 1000. In the United States the figures are respectively, 6 per 1000 and 7 per 1000.
Drought and civil conflict are certainly causes for famine. In the Horn of Africa, however, famine can be traced, more than any other reason, to artificially high prices for food.
It is true that the people in the Horn of Africa are suffering through the worst drought in decades, but droughts have always been a presence there. It is politics and bad economics that lay at the root of the current famine situation.
The increase in the price of staple grains has triggered famines in the area and beyond. In Somalia, the prices of maize and red sorghum have increased over 100 percent. In Ethiopia, the cost of wheat has risen almost as much as 90%. In Kenya, maize now costs over 50% more than it did in 2010. In Kenya the price for maize is close to 70 percent above the world average. The price increases are a direct result of food speculation. A small number of farmers, as well as the food speculators, control the market and drive prices artificially high.
The World Bank has announced that its Food Price index increased 33 percent in July from a year ago and remained close to the 2008 peak levels. Although almost beyond comprehension, maize is more expensive in the Horn of Africa than it is in the United States.
The cost of food is determined by commodity and futures exchanges. The most important being in Chicago, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Some reports show that 75% of investments in the agricultural sector are speculative in nature. This speculation has lined the pockets of big business while it has taken the food out of the mouths of the people trying to survive in the Horn of Africa.
It is this poverty and desperation that makes the region one of the most unstable areas of the world and why the Horn of Africa is one of the areas of most concern to US foreign policy.
The ongoing attacks on shipping by pirates off the coast of Somalia accentuates the importance of the Horn of Africa as a major objective in the war against terrorism. With the region being defined as the northeast portion of Africa, encompassing Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, it covers approximately 772,200 square miles and is inhabited by roughly 100 million people. This part of Africa, with a large Muslim population, is ripe for being radicalized by al-Qaeda. The fight against terrorism must not only be a mission to attack terrorists directly, it must also be a fight to reduce the ability for terrorists to recruit new members. Members destined for Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond where suicide bombings and direct attacks on innocent people are planned and executed.
So, what can be done?
On the humanitarian level their must be assistance in food donations and medical care. Livestock must be also taken care of. New wells must be dug to provide clean water. These are just a few remedies that should be made immediately, but most importantly there must be regulations on the food speculators.
If there is one lesson we should learn it is that hunger is a political problem.