March 30, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: Africa’s Horn of Scarcity

• The countries of the Horn of Africa are facing crisis conditions brought about by the worst drought conditions in more than a generation. Hundreds of thousands of the region’s inhabitants face life-threatening food and water shortages, and many more are being forced to relocate. It is possible that lower than average rainfall could lead to the third crop failure in as many years.

Poor transportation networks and underdeveloped food distribution centers have impeded the delivery of much-need assistance, but so, too, have corruption ? especially diverted food aid that is sold in private markets ? along with crime and capital flight.

As of late-March, 2012, the countries of the Horn of Africa ? Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia ? continue to struggle against the lingering devastation brought about by the worst drought conditions in a generation, with more than 13 million people directly impacted by the crisis. The cascading effects of the drought have created a dire situation where 250,000 people require immediate international humanitarian food support to stay alive and as many as 750,000 people live in areas so barren of food and water that they are at risk of starvation over the longer term. In a ruinous downward spiral, the chronic shortages of food and water have also served to intensify the competition for scarce resources, further inflaming the bloody domestic and regional conflicts that have been driven by political, ethnic, and religious divisions.

Dismal weather forecasts suggest that long-term international support will continue to be an irreplaceable resource for the foreseeable future. For much of the Horn, rainfall that occurs during the March to May timeframe accounts for over half the annual total. Regrettably, current data suggest below-average precipitation is probable, a forecast that has worsened over the past month. The possibility of below-average rainfall brings with it the risk of the failure of a third consecutive crop season. Given the fact that the majority of the people living in the region derive their primary income from agriculture, this can only raise the specter of a deepening crisis.

The impoverished state of the region's transportation infrastructure has been a major obstacle to the timely delivery of much-needed supplies. In Somalia, for example, there is no railway system and the roads are very poorly maintained. Similarly, food distribution channels have been largely decimated by decades of armed conflict.

In addition, the effective distribution of food aid has also been systematically undermined by the usual suspects in scenarios of this nature: corruption, crime, and capital flight.

• Rather than delivering food supplies to the intended recipients, a number of corrupt government officials across the Horn have handsomely profited from illegally diverting the supplies to groups that, in turn, sell the donated goods in local markets at inflated prices.

• Terrorists ? including Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate ? and criminals have reportedly stolen large volumes of food supplies from convoys, warehouses, and transportation centers. Last fall, the United Nations (UN) World Food Program (WFP) publicly dismissed media reports alleging widespread food theft in Somalia. More recently, however, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia conducted a separate inquiry that uncovered the diversion of large volumes of food supplies by Somali nationals who had been awarded major transportation contracts by the WFP.

• The profits government officials have realized through the massive diversion of donated food supplies and the embezzlement of aid-related funds from government accounts have been quickly transferred out of the region and deposited in personal bank accounts.

As expected, draught and famine conditions have spurred a massive displacement of people within their own countries, as well as a large flow of refugees into neighboring countries. According to a UN report, more than half a million Somalis have streamed into Kenya, a country that is already struggling with the social and security challenges of an enormous Somali refugee population. And it isn't just the direct effects of food and water shortages that cause such a movement; the drought has also led to inflated market prices for food and fuel that are beyond the means of a substantial portion of the population. Thousands have relocated in the search for a more sustainable existence.

In 1985, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network was established with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The primary objective of the network was to enhance responsiveness to conditions that threaten food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Through persistent monitoring and ongoing analysis of the myriad factors that may affect food production, the system would ideally provide sufficient warning to enable the international community to launch efforts to help manage the developing threat in its earliest stages. Nonetheless, according to Daniele de Bernardi, coordinator of the UN's food security and nutrition working group in Nairobi, that system simply did not work. "Even with the information being shared with all stakeholders," she noted at a November 2011 UNICEF-sponsored seminar, "none of the early alerts led to preemptive mitigation and early responses."


Near-term Forecast:

• The need for substantial humanitarian assistance will continue unabated for at least the remainder of the year. Even if weather conditions improve to the point where food and livestock production could return to pre-drought levels, it will take time for that production to fill the considerable void that currently exists.


Long-term forecast:

• While the drought on the Horn of Africa has created a major humanitarian crisis, the long-term challenges in the region go well beyond weather patterns. Weak governmental structures compounded by crime, terrorism, insurgencies, and massive refugee populations make the delivery of aid an exceptionally vexing undertaking. Without a major investment in sustainable agriculture and food production, along with new strategies for delivering aid through the maze of corruption, difficult geography, and insufficient transportation networks, the next crisis should be expected the very next time the rain stops falling.


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