"Starving families flee war and drought in Somalia."
"Militia in Somalia blocks food aid."
"Somali tragedy decades in the making."
If today's headlines seem strangely familiar, it's because they are. Nearly twenty years ago, the U.S. sent aid and troops to Somalia to assist with a famine caused by a civil war. It later withdrew after a failed raid on a Somali warlord.
Since then, Somalia has been engaged in a bloody civil war, culminating in the humanitarian disaster before us today. It's déj?vu on a tragic scale.
More than 29,000 children have already died, and 500,000 more now face death without rapid intervention — a figure that would bring the number of Somali casualties to more than that of the Haitian and Japanese earthquakes combined.
Yet heartbreaking pictures of swollen bellies, buzzing flies and gaunt expressions are not doing what they once did to stir compassion and generate relief funds. Donations from individuals are down for a variety of reasons, including the sagging economy. But there is also fear about whether relief funds reach starving people, or whether they are stolen by corrupt officials or blocked by insurgents.
It is true that corruption has hampered the response. The U.N. is investigating food theft and aid rations appearing on the black market. Other impediments include al-Shabaab, a militant group with ties to al-Qaeda that still controls the south of the country and has not allowed delivery of food aid, denying the existence of famine. And neighboring Kenya is dragging its feet on opening a large refugee camp, leaving refugee women and children at the mercy of mauraders and rapists.
The Western-backed Transitional Federal Government of Somalia isn't clean, either, with human rights violations and war crimes documented against all sides in this seemingly endless conflict. An aptly titled report on these violations, released today by the NGO Human Rights Watch, sums up the situation: "You Don't Know Who to Blame: War Crimes in Somalia."
Droughts are a fact of nature, and there is little humankind can do to avert them. Famines, however, are avoidable in the 21st century, and this one is caused in part by al-Shabaab's destruction of the country's agricultural system, refusal to provide any infrastructure or services and blocking of aid for starving civilians. This famine is primarily a political problem.
But it is also the largest humanitarian disaster in world, and the international community must respond. It can do so in two different ways — short-term aid to relieve suffering and long-term aid to spur development and change. There can be no question that the first type of aid is, at this moment, a moral imperative. Somalis face an emergency situation, and help is desperately needed. Reputable organizations such as the Red Cross, World Vision and Save the Children are working to combat corruption and gain access to hard-hit parts of the country, and donations will allow them to extend their reach and save lives.
The second type of aid, long-term investment in development projects, is trickier. The only permanent solution to Somalia's troubles is the establishment of a stable, accountable government — a solution for which there is, unfortunately, little realistic hope at the moment. In the meantime, however, the international community can relieve the burden borne by Kenya and other neighboring countries through aid and refugee resettlement. It can also, as the U.N. is doing, make sure future aid is conditional on the transitional government boosting security and services.
Finding ways to invest in a stable government will be complicated, but if nothing changes, we are likely to find ourselves experiencing déj?vu all over again in another 20 years.
For more information on how to help, visit CNN's roundup of links to aid organizations.