Summer 2016

Unnatural Disaster

A quarter-million people died in the Somalia famine of 2011. It didn’t have to happen 

By Julie Flaherty

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Dan Maxwell says the drought was just one factor in the famine. “When you start to think about accountability, it’s pretty clear nobody escapes unscathed.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

The Somalia famine of 2011 was sparked by a confluence of disasters. A major drought ruined crops, killed livestock and took away wage labor opportunities for people who relied on them. At the same time, global food prices happened to rise sharply, a devastating blow for Somalia, which relies on food imports even in the best of times.

Yet even with those factors, the famine that killed 250,000 people could have been avoided, says Dan Maxwell, a professor of nutrition and humanitarian studies at the Feinstein International Center and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

In their new book, Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12, Maxwell and coauthor Nisar Majid examine what went wrong with the response to the crisis. They say it was human decision-making that stymied efforts to prevent or mitigate the worst impacts of the drought, the food-price crisis and ongoing conflict in the region.

Maxwell and Majid call for accountability from the people who made certain decisions along the line, including leaders in governments, armed groups, donor organizations, humanitarian agencies and academia—and they make no bones that analysts and academics like themselves could and should have done more to sound the alarm. Only by talking about mistakes openly, they say, will the humanitarian system keep such tragedies from repeating. Maxwell talked with Tufts Nutrition about the fallout.

Tufts Nutrition: You say that despite the drought, this famine didn’t have to happen—that it was human factors that led to so many deaths. 

Dan Maxwell: First of all, the governing authority in south central Somalia, Al-Shabaab, was opposed to humanitarian assistance, and food aid in particular. It expelled agencies or threatened them to the point that they left. So several of the major agencies that could have responded to a crisis of this magnitude, such as CARE International and the [U.N.] World Food Program, were not there.

Second, Al-Shabaab had been labeled as an international terrorist organization several years earlier, so there were increasingly dire warnings that humanitarian agencies should not allow any assistance from Western donors to end up in Al-Shabaab hands. Agencies were so worried about the legal and reputational risks of being seen to be “assisting” terrorists that they were actually self-censoring, pulling themselves out even when they had some degree of access. Up until the famine was declared, there was a clear prioritization of a counterterrorism imperative over a humanitarian imperative. Given that the epicenter of the affected area was well inside Al Shabaab-controlled territory, the cumulative effect was that only limited efforts at prevention, mitigation or response were mounted until after the famine was declared.

What else contributed to it?

The international response to the crisis was far too little and far too late. By the time the famine was declared, mortality had already peaked. Even with the drought and the food-price crisis, had there been a widespread consensus that prevention and mitigation was a priority, I doubt that it would have tipped over into an actual famine.

The purpose of having an early warning is that we get a good idea of what will happen, and we intervene early. And there is a lot of evidence that shows it is much more cost effective to do so. But if you insist on seeing figures for severe malnutrition and mortality before you respond to something, then by definition you are already too late. We shouldn’t have to learn this again.

“Up until the famine was declared, there was a clear prioritization of a counterterrorism imperative over a humanitarian imperative.”

If Al-Shabaab was keeping food aid out, and Western humanitarian agencies were not able to engage, what did people do?

What really determined whether people survived was the social network that people could call on to help. Much of this falls along clan or lineage lines. Some clans had more educated people, people in business, people in urban areas such as Nairobi and Mogadishu, people in the diaspora around the world. If you had a brother in the U.K. or a son in the Middle East who was sending you a regular remittance, you survived. There was also a second sort of network. Instead of one person sending money to a family member, it would be groups in the diaspora raising money to send back to their community in Somalia—to support people even beyond their immediate family.

So how did aid agencies eventually respond? 

A number of agencies wanted to provide cash transfers and let people buy what they needed. The long history of people migrating away from Somalia and remitting money back to their families meant there was already an informal money-transfer system in place. The local agents of these transfer companies, known as hawala, more or less knew everyone in the community. There was practically universal cell phone coverage, so you had a mechanism for informing people. And then you had this network of food traders who were much better than humanitarians at negotiating access, getting across battle lines and getting into places.

There was a big argument at the time that people would use the money to buy other things. We looked at that very carefully. It turned out that the money from these cash transfers was used overwhelming to buy food or pay down debt—debt mostly incurred buying food before there was a response. The other argument was about whether injecting cash into the economy would simply drive high food prices even higher. That also turned out not to be the case.

Unfortunately, there has been a big effort to isolate these hawala from Western banks because of fears that they might be channels for getting money to terrorist groups. What that does is strangle the means by which millions of people survived in the hope that you might dry up a handful of terrorist cells.

Why is accountability important?

Every time one of these events happens, we say this can never happen again. But much of what we focus on are technical fixes. We don’t look at who is responsible for making the decisions that led to this happening. Famines only rarely result from situations outside of human control.

When you start to think about accountability, it’s pretty clear nobody escapes unscathed. You can blame the donors for being late. You can blame the agencies for not having the courage to respond. You can certainly blame Al-Shabaab. Part of the reason we wrote the book was to put this discussion on the table, even though it can be uncomfortable for people in the humanitarian enterprise to address.

Julie Flaherty, the editor of this magazine, can be reached at

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