Posted by: smstrouse | August 18, 2011

What the !@#% Is Up with Somalia – and Why Should We Care?

I vacillate between burning compassion and compassion burnout.

The United Nations has estimated that since this summer, when Somalia was hit by a famine that extended across much of East Africa, tens of thousands of Somalis have died, and more than half a million children are on the brink of starvation.

My reaction to this is visceral: !@#%.  Haven’t we been here before? Haven’t we seen these pictures before?  How can this be?!  In a world where I have to pay money to join Weight Watchers so I can learn to limit the intake of the food which is so readily available to me in huge choices and quantities – how can people be starving?

But they are and we are being asked to help. The UN says it needs $144.9 million to respond adequately, but has so far received only $59 million. The World Food Program has received $250 million in pledges from donor countries, but says is needs another $252 million.

Still, I have questions. Haven’t relief efforts in the past been hampered by political unrest and wholesale theft of food for sale on the black market?  Somalia is still a failed state. Two decades of civil war has left the country in shambles. There is no functioning government to coordinate the delivery of food and other supplies. Added to that, Al Shabab, a militant Islamist group in control of much of southern Somalia, says that it’s better to have people starve than to accept aid from the West. And what about those Somali pirates?

There is no doubt that the situation is a mess. But the overriding fact – and the overriding reason we care – is that people are suffering. And we have to respond. But I believe that we also have to know the whole story of what we’re responding to.

First of all, can you find Somalia on a map?  I found a nifty online game that helped me with a remedial geography lesson (www.yourchildlearns.com/mappuzzle/africa-puzzle.html). Just getting the location helps understand the geopolitical situation. For instance, when I saw the map I wanted to know about Somali pirates. And I learned that these pirates see themselves, not as sea bandits, but as a coast guard. In the absence of any government, these former fishermen protect their seas from illegally fishing and waste dumping. Now it appears that the financial rewards of piracy are becoming as attractive as protection of coastal waters; pirates are basically running the economy of some regions of the country. Obviously getting an effective government in place would be the first step in addressing the piracy problem.

Concerning the piracy of food from relief organizations, the UN has been taking measures to combat theft by serving individual portions of food, instead of just handing out sacks of grain. The World Food Program is asking contractors to pay them back for any food that was not delivered. Neither group plans to stop providing aid. They are working hard to make the best of a bad situation.

Global warming is another important issue. The increased frequency of drought in east Africa will likely continue as long as global temperatures rise. Our attention to current and future food shortages must also include attention to environmental concerns. Putting out the recycling bins isn’t enough. We have to get educated about how to reverse the destructive path we’ve set for ourselves – and how it affects people half way around the world. My eating habits really do have an impact on Somali children. A good – and really simple – place to start is http://www.care2.com/click-to-donate/global-warming. Simply by clicking on their site every day, you generate a donation to Carbonfund.org, a leader in the fight against global warming.

So, here’s the challenge. In spite of compassion burnout, let’s stoke the fires of compassion and get involved in the plight of the Somali people. You choose.  A donation through your denomination (e.g. Lutheran World Relief), the UN, the Red Cross, etc; a commitment to a daily click for Carbonfund.org; get involved with interfaithpowerandlight.org – or all of the above.

I’ve done my daily click. Now I’m going to make a donation to Lutheran World Relief. There’s no time to waste. People are dying. We have to help. Please join me.

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