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2011-07-22

Horn of Africa Famine: Millions at Risk in "Deadly Cocktail" of War, Climate Change, Neoliberalism

Guests

Kiki Gbeho, country head in Somalia for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She is based in Nairobi and returned from Somalia last week.

Christian Parenti, is contributing editor at The Nation magazine and an award-winning author of several books, most recently Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. He visited the Horn of Africa for research on the book.

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The United Nations has called an emergency meeting to discuss the Horn of Africa drought, which it says has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Famine was declared in two regions of Somalia on Wednesday where 3.7 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Another eight million people need food assistance in neighboring countries including Kenya and Ethiopia. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls the situation a "catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought" and has appealed for immediate aid. We go to Nairobi for an update from Kiki Gbeho of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. We also speak with Christian Parenti, author of "Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence." "This was predicted long ago by people on the ground," Parenti says. “It’s a combination of war, climate change and very bad policy, particularly an embrace of radical free market policies by regional governments that mean the withdrawal of support for pastoralists, the type of people you saw with their dead cattle." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The United Nations has called an emergency meeting to discuss the Horn of Africa drought, which it says has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Famine was declared in two regions of Somalia on Wednesday, where 3.7 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Another eight million people need food assistance in neighboring countries, including Kenya and Ethiopia.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls the situation a "catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought" and has appealed for immediate aid. Writing in the Los Angeles Times today, he said, quote, "To save the lives of the people at risk—the vast majority of them women and children—we need about $1.6 billion in aid. So far, international donors have given only half that amount. To turn the tide, to offer hope in the name of our common humanity, we must mobilize worldwide."

The World Food Programme’s director spoke about the conditions in southern Somalia and also called for urgent assistance.

JOSETTE SHEERAN: I’ve met here today people from all over southern Somalia. And there’s no food where they are. And what we’ve heard from them—I just heard from one woman who’s lost three of her children. And so, we’re calling on the world to really back operations to scale up very quickly to reach those in the epicenter, in the famine conditions in southern Somalia. It’s very dangerous and risky, but we have to reach people. They’re not making it all the way here to Mogadishu. These are the ones lucky enough to make it here. And even these feeding centers are overrun.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s World Food Programme director Josette Sheeran.

Meanwhile, the U.N. says that pastoralist communities in Kenya and Somalia have also lost millions of their livestock. Carcasses lie all over Kenya’s North Eastern Province as the worst drought in decades continues to ravage the region.

MOHAMED HADJI: [translated] To say the truth, for the past six to seven years, we have not had any rain here. The population was around 6,000 to 7,000. But since the drought became serious, the population has drastically reduced, and it is just a few of us remaining. The others have left and have gone to look for water in pastures elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the situation in the Horn of Africa, we’re joined on the phone from Nairobi by Kiki Gbeho, the country head for Somalia of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She has just returned from Somalia.

We’re also joined in our New York studio by Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. He visited the Horn of Africa as he researched his book.

Kiki, let’s go to you first in Nairobi. Explain the scope of the problem.

Kiki Gbeho—

KIKI GBEHO: [inaudible] recently in Somalia in two locations—Mogadishu, the capital, and a location called Dolo. In both places, we met people who had walked for weeks in search of food. Some people say that they buried children along the way. And what was most disturbing about what I saw and what I heard was that the people I met said they were the better off. They had a limited amount of resources left, and so were able to move. They said they fear for those who they had left behind. The situation is dire.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you feel needs to be done?

KIKI GBEHO: Well, we need to scale up to respond to the need immediately. At the moment, even though we have received some funding from donors, it is insufficient to meet the needs. When famine was announced on Wednesday, we said we needed $300 million in the next two months to scale up response. So, one of the key issues for us right now is resources to be able to respond.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why do you think that Somalia has been so particularly hard hit in the Horn of Africa?

KIKI GBEHO: Well, it’s a deadly cocktail. We have the ongoing conflict. We’ve had several consecutive seasons of drought. And then we’ve had severe price hikes. Prices have risen in the last year by almost 300 percent. So, even though there is some food available on the market, it is simply out of the reach of the common person on the ground. So when you mix these factors together, you get what we have in Somalia at the moment. We have been talking about this since last year, so we can’t say that we are surprised. But we need to do—we need to take urgent action now, because tens of thousands of people have already died, but it is possible to save lives if we act now.

AMY GOODMAN: How did it get to this point, Kiki Gbeho? The warnings had been coming out for quite some time.

KIKI GBEHO: As I said, I think it is a deadly cocktail. It’s an ongoing conflict. We have challenges with access, so we don’t have, as you would see in other aid operations, large numbers of international agencies working on the ground. And then the global crisis, we see price hikes all over the world. The whole Horn is affected by the drought. And you end up where we are now.

I think that the good news in all of this is that we still do have the possibility to save lives. When we talk to the technical people on the ground who assess for us, they tell us, if we act now, if we take advantage of the upcoming raining seasons and plant, if we manage to get food into the country, if we manage to put cash in the hands of people, and if we manage to scale up our health interventions, we could prevent the situation from deteriorating further. At the moment, only two regions have been declared as being in drought, but if we don’t do something, we can see the remainder of the regions in the south quickly roll into the same situation.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Christian Parenti, you’ve been to the Horn of Africa, and in your recent book you dealt with the effects of climate change and the situation that’s occurring in countries like Somalia. Talk about your sense of what’s happening.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, yeah, this was predicted long ago by people on the ground. We could see it coming. And the other guest is correct: it’s a combination of war, climate change and very bad policy, particularly an embrace of free market—radical free market policies by regional governments that mean the withdrawal of support for pastoralists, the type of people you saw with their dead cattle. There are no programs from the government of Kenya, for example, to help them drill new wells, to help them with veterinary services for their ill animals, to help introduce new forms of livestock such as camels.

And then, on a broader international stage, there’s the tolerance for really rank speculation by firms like Glencore and Cargill, which have a lot to answer for in terms of this famine. One of the key events that has driven up food prices was climate change last year—worst drought in a hundred years in the Black Sea region of Russia, major flooding in U.S. and Canada. That helped drive up grain prices by almost 100 percent. But it wasn’t just that, because Russia then imposed an export ban. Glencore actually publicly lobbied for Russia to ban exports, much of which went to the World Food Programme. For example, 95 percent of the World Food Programme’s wheat comes from these Russian contracts. So, these speculators, Glencore, encouraged the Russians to impose this ban. They do that. Prices go up. Glencore then has a $60 billion IPO. So there are these—even far from the field, there are these factors that help exacerbate this emergency situation.

Then there’s the deeper structural thing of undermining state capacity and also military support, historically and presently, for wars that have helped produce failed states like Somalia. I mean, Somalia failed in part because the U.S. supported it in a decade-long war against Ethiopia, which led to its collapse.

AMY GOODMAN: We just read in headlines, Kiki Gbeho, about the al-Shabab announcing that the ban on foreign aid groups remains in effect in their area. How does that affect the United Nations and all of the aid groups coming in?

KIKI GBEHO: Well, aid agencies have worked throughout. We say the situation is difficult, but not impossible. How they operate is they work with local communities, district by district. And in dialogue with these communities, they agree on targeting communities and providing assistance. Our only interest in Somalia at this moment is to save lives, nothing else. We welcome the previous statement by al-Shabab, welcoming humanitarian agencies to resume operations in areas under their control. And I think we will continue to reiterate that the need is to increase assistance to populations in acute distress. Our only interest in Somalia at this moment is to save lives, nothing else.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Kiki, what about this issue, as you mentioned, the 300 percent increase in food prices, and Christian was mentioning? Has there been any approach made to the suppliers of these grains about bringing their prices down, especially in these countries that are so hard hit?

KIKI GBEHO: Well, I think that it’s difficult. Partly, the previous speaker mentioned the fact that there is a failed state in Somalia. We do not have a government that controls the whole country and can therefore regulate. We believe that if we were able to get food into the country, and if we were able to put cash in the hands of individuals, it could work with—we could influence the market. But the price—the high prices are not something that’s seen only in Somalia. I believe it’s in the the whole Horn. And in fact, it is global. There are global factors at play here.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in what happened this week at the U.N. Security Council, discussing the effect of climate change on peace and security. Security Council members debated whether the most powerful U.N. body should address climate change as a security matter. Speaking at the meeting, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, insisted it should.

SUSAN RICE: We have dozens of countries in this body and in this very room whose very existence is threatened. They have asked this Council to demonstrate our understanding that their security is profoundly threatened. Instead, because of the refusal of a few to accept our responsibility, this Council is saying, by its silence, in effect, tough luck. This is more than disappointing. It’s pathetic, it’s short-sighted, and frankly, it’s a dereliction of duty.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Parenti, is this a shift in policy for the U.S.? What’s the significance of what Susan Rice said at the U.N. Security Council? We don’t usually think of the United States taking proactive stances on climate change. They were quite obstructionist, for example, at the Copenhagen climate change conference.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It’s not really a shift. I mean, it’s tricky when you first look at it. But really what’s going on is the Security Council, dominated by the U.S., France, and the U.K., with Russia and China as other permanent members, and then rotating members, is essentially making a move to impose itself and sort of, some would say, hijack the discussion around climate change within the U.N. process. Now remember, there’s also another U.N. process in which the U.S. is not demanding that there be action, but is stalling, and that is the UNFCCC negotiations for a successor agreement to Kyoto, and the U.S. has played a very destructive role in that.

And so, many countries in the General Assembly were saying, "Hey, you know, we’re already dealing with climate change. Yes, it is a security problem, but that doesn’t mean it should have a primarily military response, because that doesn’t work, ultimately. In the short term, maybe it works; in the long term, it leads to failed states. What we need is to deal with creating an international fund, which is part of these negotiations, which can transfer capital and technology to the Global South. It needs to be done within the context of the General Assembly." And there are these ongoing negotiations that the U.S. has essentially almost sabotaged. And now the U.S. wants to appear proactive and use the discourse and methods that it dominates, which are military methods and control this through the Security Council.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And is that why Russia and China sought to block this effort? Or were there other reasons—

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: —some of the stuff you were mentioning about Russia before in terms of food supply?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, yes and no. I think that there’s an element of those two countries, as emerging economies, wanting to push back against the OECD countries on the Security Council, but then there’s also the fact that, I mean, the Security Council is made up of historical polluters and current polluters. I mean, Russia is a major oil exporter. China is a major consumer of fossil fuels. So I think there were those issues, as well, that they’re hesitant to be brought to account on those issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee that voted yesterday to ban funding in next year’s budget for Obama’s initiative to support poor nations in adapting to climate change or pursuing clean energy. That doesn’t mean it has passed through the Senate, but it was voted.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, and that’s one of—that’s a sort of domestic analog to one of the key issues in these international debates, which is setting up $100 million—or $100 billion fund to help with adaptation and mitigation in the Global South. So, I mean, in the Horn of Africa, there is no state capacity, there is no money, for helping people to adapt to this extreme climate—i.e. bringing in new livestock, developing water-harvesting techniques, because it does rain in the Horn of Africa, but it usually comes down, due to climate change these days, as sudden deluges. So there needs to be technological and social adaptation to that.

This fund that will be part of the successor agreement to Kyoto is essential in that, and so the Republicans are signaling that they won’t have anything of it. And we should recall that, of course, the preceding agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed by Clinton but not ratified by the Senate, so it never became force of law here in the U.S. And it had, as a result, very minimal impact internationally in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: Money that goes into the military versus into this kind of aid?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: At first, it looks very proactive and necessary. There’s all this instability. But if you look historically at the role of U.S. military aid, it undermines stability. I mean, look at the U.S. role in Somalia. It supported Siad Barre until he collapsed, and there hasn’t been a military state—

AMY GOODMAN: The long-reigning dictator there.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Yeah, who started a war in '77 against Ethiopia. Look at Pakistan—not the same region, but one of the most water-stressed countries in the country, just suffered a major drought. The U.S. has poured $20 billion in military aid into that country. It becomes less and less stable every year, and I would argue, as a result of flooding it with cheap weapons, developing these asymmetrical assets, and, you know, neglecting land reform and social justice. And that's a country that is prime for, you know, relative state failure, state failure in some parts.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Parenti, we want to thank you for being with us, contributing editor at Nation magazine, author of a number of books, including his most recent, just out, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. His first chapter is on our website at democracynow.org. And thanks so much to our guest in Nairobi, to Kiki Gbeho, head of the Somalia Office of U.N. Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Thanks so much for being with us.

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