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The 2011 famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response

New Somali arrivals having crossed the border into EthiopiaSummary of published research1

Location: Somalia

What we know: In July 2011, a famine was declared in Southern Somalia despite sufficient, timely and robust early warnings. Around 258,000 people died. Multiple causes are recognised including drought, conflict, anti-terrorism legislation limiting aid, increased global food prices and chronic structural factors.

What this article adds: This analysis shows that the humanitarian system failed to prevent famine as five conditions for timely response - presence, access, adequate funding, operational capacity and legal protection for humanitarian action – were not met. The political agendas of donor governments, regional powers, and the warring authorities within Somalia were incompatible with the prevention of famine and hindered the ability of the UN-led cluster system to operate independently and effectively. Significant reforms to prevent this happening again rely on depoliticised aid, such as transparent and pooled funding mechanisms that are based on pre-defined criteria, quickly accessible to operational agencies and protected from political influence.

On 20 July 2011, in the wake of 11 months of escalating warnings, the United Nations (UN) declared famine in two regions of South Central Somalia. Further declarations followed in four more areas over the course of the next two months. The famine is thought to have cost the lives of 258,000 people, while hundreds of thousands more fled across the border into Kenya and Ethiopia.

Although the media focused on drought as the main cause, the 2011 Somalia famine was caused by multiple factors that included conflict, the use of anti-terrorism legislation by the US government to prevent aid reaching Southern Somalia, an increase in global food prices and other long-standing, structural factors. Early warnings of the impending health catastrophe were sufficient, timely, and robust. However, timely action and an effective response from national authorities and the international humanitarian system were lacking.

Various reasons for this inappropriate use of early warning information by donors and decision makers have been discussed, including their problems in dealing with the uncertainty inherent in probabilistic analysis and the absence of definitive statements about future mortality. Other factors included a lack of advocacy activity to highlight the impending crisis and the complex political environment surrounding the conflict. Had there been a more effective response to early warning, then preventive interventions could have been undertaken to minimise excess mortality and morbidity. But no scale-up occurred until famine was declared, when it was, by definition, too late.

A recently published article explores why early warnings were ignored and what reforms to the humanitarian system are required to help prevent a recurrence of famine in Somalia or elsewhere. The authors posit that five conditions need to be in place for a timely response to early warnings by humanitarian agencies. These are: presence, access, adequate funding, operational capacity and legal protection for humanitarian action. The article considers each in the run up to the 2011 Somalia famine.


In the case of Somalia, key humanitarian actors were missing. The World Food Programme (WFP) is the UN agency primarily responsible for the provision of food assistance and the co-leader of the ‘Food Security Cluster’ in Somalia. As such, it is the UN ‘provider of last resort’ with an obligation to do everything it can to “ensure an adequate and appropriate response”. However, WFP had withdrawn from South Central Somalia in January 2010. Already suffering repeated attacks on its staff, WFP’s presence became untenable when a 2009 UN monitoring exercise released preliminary information about significant food aid diversions, including to al Shabaab and other armed opposition groups. These findings attracted a good deal of attention from US officials and the media. The implementation of US legislation (discussed below) and associated pressures were other important factors that may have contributed to the decision by WFP to withdraw.


In Somalia, humanitarian access has been challenged for decades. Humanitarian aid has formed a critical part of the economy and political power has been built upon it and used to control access to it. In South Central Somalia, access was denied to a number of key agencies by al Shabaab. Shortly after WFP had suspended operations in the region in 2010, the agency was accused of political motives and banned, making it impossible for it to return as famine approached. A further 16 UN agencies and international NGOs were later banned for “illicit activities and misconduct” during November 2011, while the famine was on-going. Nonetheless, operational agencies such as Médecins San Frontières, Somalia Red Crescent Society, Islamic charities, and the International Committee of the Red Cross continued to enjoy access permissions in al-Shabaab administered areas, albeit with certain restrictions, before and during the famine. Importantly, these agencies operated largely outside of the UN-led cluster system.

Operational capacity

Without doubt, Somalia presents a very challenging operating environment and most agencies struggle to maintain adequate human resource and material capabilities to meet the high level of need. During 2011, it was particularly difficult to maintain or build adequate operational capacity in South Central Somalia or to control or monitor the quality of relief programmes. Due to insecurity, even agencies that had access to field sites in Somalia had to rely usually on managing projects remotely from offices in Nairobi.

Adequate funding

Funding for South Central Somalia declined by half between 2008 and 2011 as the USA withdrew support and imposed highly stringent reporting restrictions as part of efforts to prevent the use of aid by al Shabaab. The EU also scaled back funding to South Central Somalia, to the extent that some member states were accused of “wilful neglect” as famine struck. Arguably due to the slow response of western donors, several new stakeholders did enter the donor pool for Somalia during 2011. These included Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Turkey, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and China. But their contributions, although substantial, were not adequate to address the shortfall.

Legal protection

Fear of litigation by governments reduced the speed and extent of responses that could have prevented the development of famine. In particular, sanctions imposed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control and extensions to the criminal code made under the PATRIOT Act, introduced widespread concern within the humanitarian community that organisations or individuals could be prosecuted under US law for undertaking humanitarian work in areas administered by entities labelled by the US government as ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisations’, such as al Shabaab.

The political context

The humanitarian system failed to prevent famine in South Central Somalia in 2011, not because of a failure in early warning, but rather because the five requirements outlined above were not met. The reasons why are numerous and complex, however the authors argue that politics was a key factor.

The strategy of western donors in Somalia was primarily shaped by the ‘global war on terror’; the priority being to undermine al Shabaab, the de facto administration in the worst-affected areas. Inadequate funding was a direct and inevitable consequence of donor anti-terror legislation. So was the failure to provide an enabling legal environment for humanitarian agencies to operate without the threat of prosecution. This strategy also had serious consequences for the presence, operational capacity and access of agencies on the ground. Donor concerns about the diversion of food aid to al Shabaab almost certainly contributed to WFP’s decision to withdraw following the critical UN monitoring report. Association with western donors made it dangerous for agencies to maintain operational capacity in al Shabaab controlled areas and made al Shabaab’s decision to ban WFP and 16 other UN agencies and international NGOs more likely.

The prevention of famine was not of primary concern to al Shabaab. In addition to its decision to limit humanitarian access as part of its propaganda campaign against the West, reports indicate that al Shabaab also placed restrictions on the movement of people attempting to flee affected areas, and extracted agricultural taxes likely to have exacerbated food insecurity. The military campaign against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its regional and western allies was the overriding priority.

The objectives of regional powers within Somalia are complex and not purely humanitarian. For example, there are advantages to Kenya and Ethiopia in being allies of the West in the global war on terror, most obviously in terms of aid receipts. In addition, military operations in Somalia may help achieve wider economic objectives associated with the development of the Lamu corridor (also known as LAPSSET), an ambitious project which includes running an oil pipeline from Lamu on the coast of Kenya through to the oilfields of Southern Sudan. Associated infrastructure and tourism development will also benefit Ethiopia. In addition, there are significant gas reserves in the Lamu basin, which lies just south of the Kenyan/ Somali border. All of these offer substantial opportunities for developing the economies of East Africa. However, the infrastructure development also requires security and a pacified Somalia, as land based incursions into the North Eastern Province of Kenya would threaten the development of the pipeline, whilst marine raids could jeopardise both the development of the gas concessions and the later export of oil and gas from Lamu, only 60 miles from the border. From this standpoint, the military operations of regional powers within Somalia, particularly those of Kenya, can be more easily understood.

International attempts to blockade al Shabaab held territories were a strategy to weaken al Shabaab, but made famine in these areas more likely. The primary objective of an incursion by Kenyan troops during the famine was not to respond to the kidnapping of western tourists as originally claimed, but probably to annex the land west of the Juba river in order to create an effective buffer territory (Jubaland).

Once famine was declared, humanitarian agencies operating in this highly complex and politicised environment responded rapidly. However until then, agencies had collectively failed to raise the alarm or increase their consolidated appeal, on the basis that it was politically unrealistic to do so given donor policies towards Somalia. Agencies also failed to collectively adapt to WFP’s absence from South Central Somalia; contingency plans were not developed despite the collapse in presence and operational capacity that this represented. WFP remained the provider of last resort despite its questionable ability to perform this role while operationally absent from the areas most at risk. Whilst al Shabaab’s claim that the agencies it banned were pursuing ‘illicit activities’ was probably nonsense, its underlying concern that they were somehow linked to hostile governments was not. Agencies working through the cluster system could never hope to be perceived as neutral. The cluster system was led by the UN, which in Somalia had a dual humanitarian and political mandate. It was heavily dependent upon western donors for its funding and had links both to the UN-mandated AMISOM force fighting al Shabaab, and the TFG. It is no surprise that those agencies operating largely outside of the cluster system maintained the greatest access.

Whilst the facts that fully explain who did what and why may never come to light, prima facie it appears that the 2011 Somalia famine followed from multiple acts of politically motivated omission and commission. Al Shabaab expelled humanitarian agencies. Donor governments withheld funding despite increasingly urgent warnings of impending famine. Regional powers undertook military operations that made famine more, not less, likely. Fundamentally, the various political agendas of donor governments, regional powers, and the warring authorities within Somalia were incompatible with the prevention of famine and hindered the ability of the UN-led cluster system to operate independently and effectively.

What can be done better to insulate the humanitarian system from political influences and prevent these failures from being repeated? The interface between agencies and donor governments must be better delineated and scrutinised. In particular, arrangements that can help isolate funding decisions from geopolitical agendas must be explored. This might include a greater use of pooled funds into which donors pay regular upfront contributions, devolving allocation decisions to agencies to be based on need. Innovative financing mechanisms which release funds according to pre-agreed early warning triggers, allowing agencies to access early funding without recourse to political decision-making, may also offer some potential. At a minimum, donor governments should develop clear and transparent guidelines that specify when particular humanitarian interventions are warranted and on what basis they will fund them, so that they can be held accountable to these. The cluster system, embedded within the UN and tied to national governments, offers important advantages in situations where the political agendas of donors and national authorities are aligned. However in complex emergencies such as Somalia, characterised by conflict and multiple opposing political agendas, there is a fundamental mismatch between the design of the cluster system and the need to achieve both actual and perceived humanitarian neutrality. A rethink is needed. The reforms outlined above are ambitious, if not aspirational. They would certainly be resisted by donor governments standing to lose power in a depoliticised system. Nonetheless, they are needed to reduce the risk of the 2011 famine being repeated, in Somalia or in a complex emergency elsewhere.

Show footnotes

1Seal. A and Bailey. R (2013). The 2011 famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response? Conflict and Health 2013, 7:22

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Summary of published research (). The 2011 famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response. Field Exchange 47, April 2014. p27.



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