In the humanitarian crisis hitting the Horn of Africa, the international community faces a complex set of factors that extend beyond the need to relieve the region’s vast famine and human dislocation.

September 20, 2011

In the humanitarian crisis hitting the Horn of Africa, the international community faces a complex set of factors that extend beyond the need to relieve the region’s vast famine and human dislocation—factors ranging from countering rampant insecurity and violent extremist groups to addressing underdevelopment, ethnic and religious tensions and the very lack of a functioning state in Somalia. The mix of conflict, drought and starvation have created significant obstacles for those seeking to deliver life-saving aid and adhere to international humanitarian principles even while searching for political solutions for a fractured Somalia.

The need to forge a policy response that integrates emergency humanitarian actions with other important priorities has been receiving unprecedented attention at the State Department, including in last year’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). At the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) on September 28, the head of the State Department’s principal humanitarian bureau, Eric P. Schwartz, will offer his take on U.S. interests in ongoing humanitarian crises and recent efforts to make the responses — both among agencies of the U.S. government and with international and non-governmental organizations -- more coherent and effective.

Schwartz, who has served as the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, is expected to focus on the crises emanating from Somalia and Libya. His talk comes near the conclusion of his two years in the post and just weeks before he joins the University of Minnesota as the next dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. In 2001-02, Schwartz was a Jennings Randolph senior fellow at USIP.

“Policymakers in general are starting to think much more about regional approaches to the world’s crises,” says Mary Hope Schwoebel, a senior program officer in USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding and a specialist on the Horn of Africa.

Schwoebel considers past policy toward the Horn of Africa a “classic case of stovepiping our assistance”—a lack of coordination and overall direction guiding U.S. and international efforts to tackle Somalia’s long-running instability, insecurity, breakdown in governance, poverty and dramatic lack of development. Schwoebel argues that the impacts from one sort of problem spill into and worsen other problems, calling for a more comprehensive approach. “Diplomacy is based on states but the problems are often regional—and involve a plethora of non-state actors—especially in the Horn of Africa,” she said.

In a new On the Issues, Schwoebel notes that Somalia is facing the worst famine and drought in more than half a century, with half of the population now dependent on food aid. Tens of thousands are believed to have died since the drought began this summer, and at least 150,000 have fled to internal camps in the capital Mogadishu or refugee camps across the borders in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. Writes Schwoebel, “Refugees are flowing into neighboring countries, and humanitarian agencies are unable to get aid to the populations in need due to the presence of armed militias….So, while the drought is a natural phenomenon, the famine is a social phenomenon.” The refugee crisis, she adds, could lead to more recruits for Somalia’s Islamist militias, but splits between leaders of the radical groups over the delivery of international aid could also be used to start a dialogue that could open the way for peace talks.

According to the State Department, more than 12.7 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are in need of emergency assistance. The United States is said to be the region’s largest humanitarian aid donor, having provided more than $600 million so far.

In a Libya beset by civil war, meanwhile, the United States had provided more than $80 million in humanitarian assistance by June, much of it for the evacuation and repatriation of third-country nationals caught up in the struggle.

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