The Somali Famine: Where Are the Bad Guys When We Need Them?

In a world where adequate food is produced to feed everyone -- why are so many people still starving to death? Can any of us imagine what it would be like to watch our small child starve slowly, over many weeks, to simply fade away, painfully, and miserably? Or perhaps more mercifully, succumb to the fevers of malaria or the violent diarrhea and vomiting of cholera -- knowing that somewhere in the world people live happily in their air-conditioned ranch houses with a full refrigerator and three cars in the garage?

The looming deaths of hundreds of thousands of Somalis from famine and disease should be on everyone's mind. What kind of a world allows this level of mass suffering? How could it be that, as the New York Times recently reported, "There's no mood for intervention" among Western aid agencies?

We haven't always been this indifferent. In 1979, tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees staggered into Thai refugee camps after the Vietnamese invasion of their country. Working in one of those camps was my first exposure to a true humanitarian disaster. Add tuberculosis to the above list of afflictions, and the problems were exactly the same. These people, too, were fleeing violence. They had traveled untold miles on foot, seeking food, shelter, clean water, refuge. They came with their children and the clothes on their emaciated bodies, nothing more.

And yet the world seemed to care then about the dying Cambodians. Well-organized camps were set up by the UN in Thailand to receive those streaming in, with food programs and medical care. The death rates graphed on the wall of the camp health office quickly dropped from dozens a day to a few deaths per month. Joan Baez visited to publicize their plight, and multitudes of NGOs joined the camps to provide services. There was a clear commitment from the Western world to respond.

What has changed? For decades, security concerns have plagued Somalia. Sadly, U.S. policy has contributed to those problems. In the early 1990s, U.S. forces went on a well-publicized "rescue mission" in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. But American troops were killed when two helicopters were shot down in the famous "Black Hawk Down" event. The U.S. quickly withdrew, killing several thousand in the process and leaving the country in the hands of warlords. After 9/11, in an antiterrorist frenzy, the U.S. froze the assets of an important Islamic charity, al-Barakat -- adding to the suffering of Somali peasants. In 2006, we again punished the wrong side, supporting the Ethiopian invasion and overthrow of the Islamic Courts government, which had been a stabilizing force in the country.

Fast forward to today. The al-Shabab militants have retreated from Mogadishu but the UN peacekeeping force is still needed there to provide a secure environment for the internal refugees streaming in. Existing camps within Somalia and in neighboring countries are underfunded, and migrants risk horrendous violence from roving bandits just getting to them. Clearly "the policy of the U.S. and the larger international community toward Somalia has failed," as noted in a recent Huffington Post blog.

Is there a deeper reason our response to the disaster in the Horn of Africa is so weak compared to what has happened with other crises? One explanation may be that we need villains -- identifiable Bad Guys -- to motivate decisive action when politically-based disasters arise. That's been true in other settings. In Darfur we had the president of Sudan to vilify, and what was said to be the largest humanitarian operation in the world was launched when media attention focused on that humanitarian crisis. We had high-profile villains in the days of the Cambodian exodus too: the infamous butcher Pol Pot, Communist regimes in both Cambodia and its invader, Vietnam. The Vietnamese had recently defeated us in an unpopular war, and to make things worse, they were allied with our archenemy, the Soviet Union. The situation in Somalia suggests that the real nature of much of the official "humanitarian" aid in today's world is undertaken for geopolitical concerns, not out of charity.

For whatever reasons, although the UN predicts up to 750,000 starvation deaths in Somalia over the next few months, their appeal for funds in July was a billion dollars short of the $2.4 billion needed to stave off that disaster. Although we can't blame any one source for the famine, violence and anarchy -- unless it might be our own foreign policy -- is it not worthy of a response? Political explanations won't help the Somali children who are being orphaned as their parents waste away from starvation.

Certainly long term solutions to the complex problems of the region need to be found by the African nations themselves. But in the short term, a massive outpouring of letters to our governmental representatives -- congresspersons, members of parliament, presidents, prime ministers -- could make the difference between life and starvation. The message: UN troops must have enough support to assure safe passage for refugees and secure provision of relief efforts, and enough food aid needs to be available to avert the disaster. For those who are also moved to donate funds as individuals, the ONE web site has a list of active relief groups.

There is still time to prevent this looming tragedy -- can we do it even without Bad Guys to blame?