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Horn of Africa: Recoveries Fail and Fail Again


Horn of Africa famine
To reach a water source in rural Ethiopia can mean six-hour treks each way. SUSANNAH NICOL/WFP

WASHINGTON — News on the humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa continues to flare in the media ever since famine struck last summer and lasted through the fall. Although the famine was declared resolved by the United Nations this winter, relieved by good harvests and a flood of food aid, a crisis could reoccur. Droughts are unavoidable, and the conflict in Somalia between the transitional government and militants can easily lead to food scarcity again. The White House has committed $120 million for emergency aid in the Horn of Africa region, which will help alleviate – though certainly not solve – the enormous lingering refugee problem.

But supporters of global engagement need to recognize that the issues in the region are long term and deep, requiring much more than short-term fixes. Band-aid approaches and food rations may salve the conscience of donors, but even a cursory overview of some developments in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia over the last generation shows that the UN, the United States and the larger international community must be prepared for extended involvement if any stability is to last. Both our national security and our humanitarian concerns demand no less.

I had the privilege of working for the World Bank in the 1980s on the development policies and programs of Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. What is being heard today about all three countries sounds strikingly familiar to what I heard back then.

Sudan’s bloodshed

In the 1980s, Sudan was still recovering from civil conflict dating to the 1960s. It’s clear now that the recovery failed to hold, as evidenced in the outbreak of a civil war that led to the official secession of South Sudan, the massacres in Darfur and new fighting along the border of Sudan and South Sudan, carried out by both countries over oil rights.

Debt and financial stress were major issues in the 1980s, and we at the World Bank worked closely with the Sudanese authorities on major economic reforms and associated international fund-raising. When the Sudanese president, Gafaar al-Nimeiry, stopped in Cairo on his way back to Khartoum in 1985, after failing to raise new funds overseas and was overthrown by a coup, I had to turn my attention away from the Horn to countries in the Indian Ocean.

Ethiopia: famine and secession

During my time in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia was also experiencing major troubles. Bordering Sudan on the east, Ethiopia was led by a military regime struggling to overcome secessionist conflict in the north. The country was collaborating closely with the Soviet Union and its allies. Project financing from international institutions was feasible despite the government’s socialist policies. Famine broke out in 1984, and the international community was galvanized to offer support.

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At the World Bank, we provided soft loans for Ethiopia to buy trucks to transport major grain imports for emergency feeding. I had the privilege of working closely with the technocratic minister of finance, Tesfaye Dinka.  After my work moved to the Indian Ocean region, he became prime minister.  The regime collapsed with the flight of Ethiopia’s leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, to Zimbabwe, and Eritrea declared independence.  The ethnic base of the new Ethiopian regime changed and remains frozen today.  Conflict, however, continues, as even outside support has not lessened the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Somalia’s endless wounds

In the 1980s, Somalia received little attention internationally. While weak institutionally, the autocratic government of the president at the time, Siad Barre, kept the country more or less together.  Tensions with the northern provinces, which had once been British Somaliland, were serious.  Eventually Somaliland declared its independence, but this has not been widely accepted internationally. Clans were important then as we worked to rally global financial support to keep the Barre regime afloat.

In retrospect, our focus was probably too much on short-term financial issues and not enough on building Somalia’s institutions.  Since then, of course, the conflicts of clans, weak institutions, coastal piracy, collapse of the country into nearly total anarchy and hundreds of thousands of refugees have placed Somalia on the worldwide agenda and in the media – all unfavorably.

Geopolitical dynamics significantly influenced economic and social policies in the Horn of Africa. Sudan was informally allied with the West during the 1980s and attempted to collaborate with Western countries and institutions.  Ethiopia had been close to the West under Emperor Haile Selassie, but his overthrow by military leaders led to collaboration, including security support, from the Communists.  During Selassie’s time, Somalia worked closely with the countries of the Soviet bloc. Selassie’s downfall and the advent of the military regime in Ethiopia pushed Somalia to the West.

Staying for the long haul

Despite these ups and downs and some striking changes, it has become clear over the last 25 years that the US has a major national security interest in development and stability in the region. The anarchy in Somalia allows the growth of Islamist groups and training of international terrorists.  The continuing piracy adds hundreds of millions of dollars in increased costs to international trade and major military deployment and expenses in the region. UN and African Union mediation and peacekeeping forces in Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia are essential for an extended period to foster the stability that is essential for the development of institutions that can hold these societies together.

As we read of the most recent humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa and possibly more to come this summer, we should remember that we have been here before and that the panoply of international actors – the UN, regional organizations, key UN member countries and nongovernmental organizations — must sustain full and continuous engagement.

 Additional resources

A Search for Truth Behind UN Motives in Africa

Where Will the News Be in 2012?

More Refugees Flee the Horn of Africa for Yemen

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.

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Horn of Africa: Recoveries Fail and Fail Again
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