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Somalia: On the Brink, Out of the Spotlight

By Harry DiFrancesco

Is the world about to watch 750,000 Somalis starve to death?” The opening line to a story I read in Friday’s New York Times. Given the fact that the story didn’t even make the front page of the International Section, let alone A1 — it was buried on A5 — I couldn’t help but respond to the question with an emphatic “NO.”

The world is not going to watch 750,000 Somalis starve. It is going to ignore them. It will change the channel, get all het up over the race between a Christian and a Mormon for the chance to face Obama in an election 14 months from now, worry about how the all-powerful financial markets will react to Europe’s debt and wring its hands over the fact that there just aren’t any freaking jobs!!!! The world is busy, Somalis, can you not see that? Besides, didn’t we help you out in the ’90s? We sent 25,000 troops and a multi-billion dollar military and aid mission. Now it seems that we are back at square one: a failed-state, violent warlords and militias, food shortages, starving people and demand for Western humanitarian help.

An American official at the recent famine summit meeting in Nairobi summed it all up: “There’s no mood for intervention.” So, despite the fact that we have improved food distribution systems, that we have implemented a Famine Early Warning System and that aid groups have “pre-positioned” food in Somalia to avoid famines like the one the country now faces, we are still missing one thing: the desire to help. We are, as it were, burned out. Add on top the very real possibility that we can only save a fraction of the 750,000 people facing starvation, and the reluctance to intervene becomes understandable, prudent even.

That last thought is scary. Here it is put in slightly different terms: since we probably won’t be able to save many or even most of the starving people, let’s just let them all starve. As Ken Menkhaus (a Professor at Davidson quoted in The Times) said: “We’ve lost this round, the numbers are going to be horrifying. We’re too late.”

There are two points that struck me about this sentence. First, isn’t it odd — see incredibly callous — to refer to starving people as “numbers”? Not that we have to know all their names, family histories and deepest fears, but they at least deserve to be seen as people, as human beings only different from us insofar as they happened to be born in a forgotten corner of the planet. Second, the idea that we have “lost this round” makes me feel as if we can still win the bigger fight, so to speak. That at some undefined moment in the future we will end hunger. It allows me to skate past the heart-wrenching thought that 750,000 people are going to die.

Now, before beating myself up, it might be worth asking what I could have done. Given the many difficulties that Somalia faces, it is possible to conclude: not much. Although, justifying inaction because we may only be able to do a little is a slippery slope and quickly becomes an excuse for never doing anything.

What I can do, however, is start to reconsider how I interpret humanitarian aid or “intervention.” Because at the root of the failure to help is the view that our relationship with Somalia –– and with other regions facing similarly dire circumstances –– is based on rescuing, saving and aiding. The thought goes something like this: “We, the advanced and civilized West, have the obligation to lift the poor, black African people (or ‘numbers,’ if you prefer) from their wretched conditions.”

We are not interested in these places because we have something to learn. Rather, we interact with them because we have the duty to teach. Until we shift that paradigm we will continue to run the risk of “humanitarian burnout.” After all, the ephemeral feeling of doing some good is, well, just that: short-lived. Just ask anybody in the Aid biz.

If we were, though, to consider what Somali society could teach us— to view our interactions with other places as an exchange rather than a one-way street — we might be able to care about the lives of 750,000 unnamed Somalis. There would be more reason to act so that their society can avoid tragedy.

What exactly, we might ask, do we have to learn from Somalia? Well, one thing might be an appreciation for the natural world from which we have become perilously disconnected. Another might be an appreciation for the elderly, who we shut away in old-people’s homes to avoid facing death. Yet another could be that life is not necessarily wholly and solely about the rat race, about winning, about being successful; it is also about appreciation, generosity, community.

I realize that Somalia does not hold the key to the West’s problems. I also realize that the above proposition may sound pathetically idealistic. I hope, however, we can admit that interacting with other cultures, solely in order to remedy their problems and never because of a desire to learn what they may have to teach us, reveals a shocking arrogance. And a true lack of humanitarianism.

One Comment on “Somalia: On the Brink, Out of the Spotlight

  1. The real moral problem is that we have the feeling thaht the rich Muslim nations will not help Somalia. From the point of many Westerners, the oil rich countries have the moral obligation to send massive help to Somalia and the Somalians have the moral obligation to demand this help.

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