Why does Somalia face famine but Somaliland does not when both face drought? Ishaan Tharoor says it’s because of climate change but history and Somaliland’s success suggest he’s wrong
Ishaan Tharoor, a foreign affairs columnist at the Washington Post, didn’t mince words about a looming famine in Somalia. “Ordinary Somalis … have contributed little to the emissions that are warming the planet. But they are on the front lines of the catastrophic climatic events scientists believe will only grow more common in the years to come.” On cue, National Public Radio picked up the story, allowing the author to expound unchallenged on “the connection between the hunger crisis, the war in Ukraine and climate change.”
If the media really want to “follow the science,” however, they got cause and effect wrong.
Certainly, the Horn of Africa does face drought and famine in Somalia. It may be a bit of an exaggeration to blame climate change, though, given the cyclical nature of drought in the Horn. When scientists voice hypotheses, they seek to prove them by isolating variables to rule out any other explanation. Here is the problem: Suggesting emissions cause climate change, which in turn explains famine, may conform with journalists’ politics — but not with science.
Consider: A famine in the mid-19th century in Tigray killed 100,000, long before climate change became a catchall excuse to explain any tragedy. There was also a drought in the same region in 1956. The media say today’s drought is the most severe in the past 40 years.
Many Generation Xers remember the 1983-1986 drought for both the resulting Ethiopian famine and the Live Aid effort to raise money for relief. What many forget, however, is that during this drought, the country produced enough food to feed its entire population. Starvation occurred for two reasons. First, Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was fighting a civil war against both Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels. Each side sought to use food as a weapon. Second, decades of corruption left Ethiopia’s infrastructure woefully underdeveloped. The regime simply could not get the food it produced from one part of the country to another.
There were other droughts. The 2011 drought affected both Ethiopia and Somalia, but it is largely remembered today only for the devastation it wrought on the latter. That is because the resulting famine in Somalia killed more than 100,000, but only a few hundred lost their lives in Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia. The reason for the discrepancy was state capacity. Ethiopia had a functioning government; Somalia was still suffering state failure two decades after dictator Siad Barre fled. There was a drought in 2017, which the Financial Times called the “worst drought in decades.”
Somalis face peril today, but blaming climate change and attempting to make Somalis a political football does them a disservice. After all, while all Somalis may face drought, not all are at risk of starvation. The Somalis most in danger of food insecurity today are those who live in portions of Somalia run by Mogadishu. In Somaliland, the once-independent breakaway region, an embrace of democracy and government accountability has led to much greater capacity and an ability to mitigate the impact of the drought.
Corruption is the larger problem. Somaliland thrives on a budget an order of magnitude smaller than Mogadishu’s. While the international community donated billions of dollars to the Somali government, much of that money either disappeared or was diverted for personal political purposes by Mohamed Farmajo, president until May 2022.
There are other reasons for Somalia’s climate peril, such as the illegal charcoal trade and, of course, the fact that too many Somalis spend money on qat which otherwise might be invested more wisely. Journalists overstate the Ukrainian grain issue, given how little the Somali diet relies on wheat.
Certainly, it is moral to provide relief, but it is immoral not to recognize the moral hazard that aid creates in greasing corruption and starvation. Simply put, the willingness of the international community to throw money at Somalia and ignore its dysfunctional and corrupt government is far more responsible for its cycle of famine than climate change.
Arab politics, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Horn of Africa
Bio & Experience
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East.
A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre-and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).
Dr. Rubin has a Ph.D. and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.
- Foreign Military Studies Office: Contract Analyst, 2012–present
- Naval Postgraduate School: Senior Lecturer, 2007–21
- Middle East Quarterly: Editor, 2004–09
- Coalition Provisional Authority (Baghdad): Political Adviser, 2003–04
- Office of the Secretary of Defense: Staff Adviser, Iran and Iraq, 2002–04
- Council on Foreign Relations: International Affairs Fellow, 2002–03
- Hebrew University (Jerusalem): Fellow, The Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, 2001–02
- Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs: Fellow, 2000–01
- Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok (Iraqi Kurdistan): Visiting Lecturer, 2000–01
- Yale University: Lecturer, Department of History, 1999–2000
- Iranian Studies: Assistant Editor, 1994–97
Ph.D. and MA in history; BS in biology, Yale University
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