Dan Maxwell presents on the 2011 Somalia famine

October 2016

On October 19, Feinstein’s acting director Dan Maxwell presented for the Friedman Weekly Seminar. Dan discussed his retrospective research on the 2011 famine in South Central Somalia, which culminated in the recent book Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures.

Click here to watch a video recording of the seminar.

To begin his analysis, Dan discussed the divide between the early warnings of the famine and the largely late, insufficient humanitarian response. He outlined the many formal and informal obstructions to mounting a fitting response, including:

  • Donor counter-terrorism policies and the hesitation of the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to approve aid
  • Humanitarian organizations’ fear of being associated with the jihadist al-Shabaab and thus having their reputations compromised
  • al-Shabaab’s unwillingness to let food aid in, as they blamed food aid for Somalis’ weak agricultural and pastoral livelihoods

In his presentation, Dan emphasized that these obstructions and others were not primarily technical, but political.

Dan spoke on the many different roles of al-Shabaab, whose controlled territories were taxed into vulnerability but were also among the safest in famine-affected Somalia, with less aid misuse than other areas. Dan also compared the effectiveness of direct food aid to that of cash transfers, and detailed why cash transfers were successful in this context.

Further, the presentation explored local responses to the crisis, explaining how different groups in Somalia were supported–or not–by relatives in the diaspora or by urban-based lineage or kin groups. Dan explained that in order to understand lack of access to food, malnutrition, and mortality, one must understand the social networks that allow some to cope better than others when confronted with similar hardships.

To conclude his presentation, Dan offered some lines of inquiry to follow in order to better understand famine and prevent such devastating crises in the future:

  • How can people in humanitarian work better negotiate with government and donors, so that political imperatives don’t obstruct aid efforts?
  • How can we reframe our understanding of protection? During the famine, people were at greatest risk when they became displaced—IDP sites inside Somalia were the scene of the worst human rights abuses—and people became displaced at the collapse of their livelihoods. How might building resilient livelihoods and social networks complement protection efforts?

To learn more about Dan Maxwell’s research on the famine:

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