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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The United Nations officially declared a famine in Somalia last week, a term invoked rarely and only in extreme crisis. Over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are desperately in need of food, in Ethiopia, in Kenya and in Somalia.

To escape the drought and hunger, many Somalis are crossing the border to refugee camps in Kenya.

SARUDA ADAN: (Through translation) My name is Saruda Adan(ph). I came from the Azore. I have four children. Famine, drought, hunger (unintelligible) all added up, has forced us to leave the Azore. I have been walking for 10 days. I encountered lots of problems on the way, including an attack. All the money I had, all the clothes, everything was taken away from me.

It was at night. It was dark. We didn't know who the attackers were, but they have robbed us of everything that we have. They only took our personal effects. None of us were sexually assaulted. We have no food. We have no shelter. We have no clothes. You can see we just spend all day in the open, in the wind. We need water. We need life.

CONAN: The word famine is a trigger for international assistance. Supplies and aid workers are already on the scene in Ethiopia and in Kenya. Much more is on the way, but Southern Somalia, where it's so serious as to qualify for the official label famine, Somalia presents a major problem.

Much of the area is controlled by the terrorist group al-Shabaab, which denies that a crisis exists and rejects the presence of foreigners.

If you've worked in disaster relief, call us. Tell us: What are the options? The phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Lev Grossman on the new reputation of fan fiction, but first the famine in the Horn of Africa. In a few minutes, commentator Ted Koppel on the unintended consequences of humanitarian impulse. But we begin at the BBC headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, where NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us. And always nice to have you on the program.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings, greetings indeed from Nairobi.

CONAN: And tell us about the scale of this problem and why it is that some people say the famine stops at the Somali border.

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, it's two so far. The U.N. has declared two parts of Southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle, as famine areas, although we're being told that more areas of Central and South Somalia are going to be declared a famine zone.

Now, the problem is, of course, Somalia has had no central government for 20 years. So many people call it a failed state. Not only are Somalis, in their tens of thousands, fleeing hunger, and as we said some famine from the famine-stricken zone, they're also fleeing conflict, because there has been fighting between supporters of al-Shabaab that you've mentioned, the militant Islamist group that controls great, huge parts of the country, including parts of the capital, Mogadishu, and the transitional interim government, which is a pretty weak government, although it's supported by both the United Nations and the United States.

It needs African Union peacekeepers to be able to exist and to be able to operate in just parts of Mogadishu. So you have this problem of Somalis not only fleeing drought and hunger but also fleeing conflict.

And many of the people, as indeed the woman I spoke to at the Somali-Kenyan border, the Dadaab camp that we've just heard, she and many others were saying we've come to Kenya because at least here we still may be hungry, but we feel safer, and there is peace in Kenya. So that is the problem facing Somalis.

But as we've said, the crisis and the drought is not only in Somalia. It's also in Kenya. It's also in Ethiopia and Djibouti. So it's a great swath of the Horn of Africa that's suffering.

CONAN: And is aid arriving there?

QUIST-ARCTON: In Somalia, yes, from today. The United Nations World Food Program started its first airlift today, and it's taking a special nutritious peanut paste especially for malnourished children because as always in this sort of crisis it is young children, children under five, and some a bit older who are suffering the most.

Up in Daadab, in northeastern Kenya by the Somali border, the three camps up there, I saw so many young children and babies, some of them acutely malnourished, other severely malnourished, and of course that takes two forms.

We have the pin-thin matchstick limbs of children with malnutrition, and then the other extreme is the children with their bloated stomachs, (unintelligible), and bloated limbs with skin that looks like war paint coming off.

And when these babies and children are touched, they start screaming because their skins are so sensitive. So that's what the humanitarian workers in the camps in Dadaab are having to deal with, and also across the border in Ethiopia. That is the reality.

And of course, the elderly and many, many women. It was especially women and children that I witnessed, that I saw both in Dadaab and then in Somalia across the border from Ethiopia.

CONAN: The World Food Program aid is going to those camps. Is it getting into Somalia?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, it arrived in Mogadishu today, the Somali capital, because apart from the Somalis who were fleeing the drought-hit areas into neighboring countries, as we said into Kenya and Ethiopia, many thousands are also heading towards Mogadishu, the capital, in search of food, shelter and medical care. And that is where the U.N. World Food Program has started sending food.

It's also going to make similar deliveries, we're told, towards the Ethiopian border, hoping, of course, to get into the zones that have been declared famine areas. But many people are saying too little, too late. This drought was predicted up to two years ago. How come the global community has waited to the last minute, has waited, as usual, they say, until they see emaciated children in images flashed all over the world before they act?

CONAN: The drought conditions are part of a cycle called La Nina. It's a reflection of the cycles of weather that come from the Pacific Ocean. And as you say, they were predicted two years ago. Do aid officials have any explanation when people say why didn't you have supplies here already?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, they say they have been talking about it. They sounded the alarm. There's an early warning system and that it's not just now that they have been talking about it. But they - they say they have a shortfall as we speak of one and a half billion dollars.

Not only for the emergency. They say the problem is when it reaches this emergency stage, it costs a lot more than if people are fed where they are, in Somalia, before things reach crisis level. So the humanitarian agencies are saying, look, we did our part. We sounded the alarm. But you know, we need the response from the U.N. member states and others to help these people before things reach an emergency, which of course they have done.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. NPR commentator Ted Koppel now joins us from his home in Maryland. Ted, always a pleasure to have you on the program as well.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back with you, Neal.

CONAN: And this is a situation that will sound familiar to you, I think, going back to 1991.

KOPPEL: Well, it does, but if you don't mind, Neal, before we get there, I wanted to ask Ofeibea a quick question, and if I may parenthetically add how much I've admired her reporting from Africa. I have heard two different versions of what al-Shabaab has said, on the one hand that they have warned foreign aid agencies to stay out of there, that they don't want them in there, indeed that all this talk of famine is some kind of Western propaganda.

And on the other hand, I've heard on the BBC from aid workers themselves in the area who say nonsense, we feel perfectly safe. What's the reality?

QUIST-ARCTON: Ted, I think it's a bit of both. I think what a lot of aid workers are saying is that al-Shabaab itself is a little divided. So local leaders in some area are cooperating because of course they don't want dead bodies, dead children, and starving people on their hands.

So you have the leadership of al-Shabaab saying, for example, the United Nations World Food Program, it was thrown out, it's not welcome, that it's promoting a Western agenda. But then you have, I think, some al-Shabaab chiefs realizing that these are their people and that if they don't let in help, these people will die.

So it's very confusing. Officially, we're hearing yes, the international aid agencies are allowed back in. Then a few days later, no, we don't allow them in. But certainly al-Shabaab feels that the humanitarian agencies, the international ones, have a Western agenda and an anti-Islamic agenda.

The aid agencies are saying, hey, we're here to try and save lives. That's what we have come for. That's why we're trying to bring in food aid and deliveries. So we'll have to see who allows that food aid in and who allows it to be distributed.

But the other problem is that you have the United States, for example, saying that yes, they are ready and willing to help, but they don't want anything to benefit al-Shabaab, which is of course on the U.S. terror watch list.

So there's all this political - there's all this politics clouding the issues, and many people are saying hey, put politics aside. We're talking about people here. That is what we need to deal with. We're talking about lives, the lives of children, the lives of women, the lives of the elderly and men. That is what we have to prioritize.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, thank you very much for your time today.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

CONAN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR's East Africa correspondent, joining us from the headquarters of the BBC in Nairobi, Kenya. Ted, stay with us if you will. I heard you trying to get in there and appreciate it.

KOPPEL: Absolutely.

CONAN: And he will be back with us as we continue to talk about the crisis in East Africa, not just in Southern Somalia, but that's where it's worse, in areas controlled by al-Shabaab, an organization that's on the list of - the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. So we're going to talk about the unintended consequences of humanitarian impulses. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The United Nations says a plane carrying 10 tons of food, mostly nutritional supplements, left Kenya today headed for Somalia, the first of several planned airlifts in coming weeks.

Some 10 million people in the Horn of Africa hit hard by drought, the worst of it in Somalia, a country ravaged not just by drought but by heavily armed anti-Western militias.

If you've worked in disaster relief, what are the options here? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ted Koppel joins us now. He's an NPR commentator and joins us from time to time on this program. and as we heard from Ofeibea Quist-Arcton just a moment ago, Ted, the United States government is very reluctant to let any - provide any aid that might go to al-Shabaab, but as we mentioned also, that might be due in part to lessons from 1991.

KOPPEL: Well, it's that old chestnut again, Neal: Those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. I find it hard to believe that it has been almost 20 years, but it has. President George H.W. Bush in that interim period between his defeat by Bill Clinton and the time that Clinton was inaugurated the following January, did something of great compassion at a time when indeed there was starvation in Somalia, as there is right now, and sent Marines over with enough food to feed - I think it was estimated that they had saved about 350,000 lives.

I was there when the Marines landed in Mogadishu. It seemed like one of those wonderful humanitarian gestures that could not possibly go wrong. But in very short order, and indeed it was after Mr. Bush was no longer in office, in very short order some of the local warlords began doing what they inevitably do there, and that is stealing the food, selling it on a black market.

And there was a U.N. peacekeeping force trying to prevent that from happening. At one point 14 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed. Eventually, U.S. troops became involved in the fighting. Most of your listeners will probably remember the book and then the movie "Black Hawk Down," which was sort of the summation of U.S. involvement in Somalia at that time.

After the helicopter was shot down, after a number of Americans were killed, after one body of an American Ranger was memorably and horribly dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, President Clinton pulled them all out.

A few weeks later, the killing began in nearby Rwanda, and the United States I think was so shell-shocked, as were the United Nations, by what had happened in Somalia that nothing was done. The end result was that 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda.

And that sort of comes back in a nutshell, Neal, to what you were talking about before: the lesson, the law, the rule of unintended consequences. Everybody wants to send food in. Everybody wants to help alleviate the starvation, but Somalia is an extremely dangerous place, and I'm not quite sure what the answer is.

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some help from some of our callers. John(ph) is on the line calling from Grand Rapids.

JOHN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi, John, any lessons that you can help us with here?

JOHN: Well, I was in Mogadishu in 1993, a part of - I worked with an NGO that was providing medical relief. And so our responsibility was to try to see if there was some specific input that we could provide: supplies, equipment, resources, medication, things of that sort.

And on the ground there was one of the more devastating places I've ever been to. We always were in limited-access, third-world countries and such, but it was one of the only places that we ever attempted to serve where we found that we really could do very little because the infrastructure was so decimated that there was virtually no opportunity for us to provide meaningful resources that we could anticipate would be utilized by the people that needed them the most.

You know, we visited feeding camps. We did mobile clinics. And other than the one-on-one things that we could do, the things that we had in our trunk, very, very little that we could do that would have lasting import.

CONAN: And could you imagine at this juncture sending significant amounts of aid to Southern Sudan - Southern Somalia, rather?

JOHN: I think it would be - given the fact that the political and governmental infrastructure is still relatively dysfunctional, it's hard for me to imagine that the things that we would provide without a direct hand in how they're distributed and how they're utilized, I think it would be almost fruitless.

CONAN: John, thanks very much. I'm not thrilled with your message but thank you very much for providing your expertise. Chris Barrett is an agricultural and development economist at Cornell University. He co-authored the book "Food Aid After 50 Years." He joins us now from a studio at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Nice to have you with us.

CHRIS BARRETT: Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And one thing you can help us out with, we've heard drought, hunger in much of East Africa. What defines a famine?

BARRETT: It's a technical and bureaucratic term that's unfortunately very emotive in use primarily for political purposes. The technical definition of a famine really revolves around two different components. The first is that there has to be an unusually high mortality risk.

Famine is about excess deaths beyond what we would expect in the society usually. And the second component is that there's a severe threat to food consumption. And note I said food consumption not food production. It's not about crop failure. It's about people being unable to obtain enough food to feed their families.

And that is sometimes due to events like drought, as is presently occurring, but it's often due to other sorts of shocks. It can be due to mass unemployment. It can be due to a food price spike. We happen to have a perfect storm of all of these things happening in places like Southern Somalia and parts of northeastern Kenya right now, hence the proclamation of a famine in Southern Somalia.

CONAN: And of course people will say it can also be strictly political, as it was in Mao's China or Stalin's Russia at various points. But the situation here, as you think about, it's not a lack of food, even if food has to come in from the outside. It's the lack of the ability to distribute it, no?

BARRETT: Absolutely, and you've hit the nub of the issue right on the head, Neal. The problem isn't that there's no food there. The problem is that there is both a severe distribution problem because the infrastructure, both the physical infrastructure of roads and airstrips, as well as the institutional infrastructure of insuring the security of shipments, there simply aren't police forces to ensure the convoys aren't raided.

That infrastructure is so deficient that it is extremely expensive and complicated and slow to deliver food. And the second complicating factor is if you can deliver it, very few people can afford to buy it. So it has to be gifts.

So we have this combination of it's complicated and expensive to get it there, and the private sector can't do it. The private distribution system is incredibly effective. You can buy a Coca-Cola in the most remote villages on Earth that get there entirely through private channels. But in this case, we need mass distribution of high-energy foods entirely as a gift from donor governments and individual agencies, and that's a complex recipe to fill.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Willy(ph), Willy on the line with us from Columbus.

WILLY: Thank you for taking my call, Neal, and hello, Ted. Thank you, NPR for taking your time to talk about the famine in the Horn of Africa. We appreciate that, all the Somalis are saying thank you to you (unintelligible).

CONAN: Well, thank you.

WILLY: I think what's happening in Horn of Africa is unfortunate and Somalia, as you know, it's been a civil war going on last 20 years.

CONAN: Yes.

WILLY: And the famine and the civil war is taking its toll on the civilians, and now we have this group called al-Shabaab, which is a terrorist group and preventing people from getting aid. And I think the - what the world needs to do is to get rid of this group, and they can do it, just like they did in Afghanistan and other countries, and Somalis are tired of them, and I think all the Somalis will join the world to get rid of this group once and for all.

CONAN: You've raised an unfortunate example there, Afghanistan. We're still in Afghanistan 10 years after we ostensibly got rid of the Taliban and still taking casualties.

WILLY: Yes, Neal, but it's still - every corner of Afghanistan now can get aid. You know, there are international troops who are there. Now we have a group - I mean, AMISOM troops in Mogadishu, and they control only a few blocks of the capital city, 10,000 of them. But the rest of Southern Somalia is in the hands of al-Shabaab.

And people are dying, and the world's watching people dying. Al-Shabaab doesn't want any international NGOs to get in there to help people. So what's the world going to do about that now? People cannot walk all the way 500 miles to Kenya or Ethiopian borders, and the people need help.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, Willy paints an accurate picture, I think, of the situation. And people say the most powerful country in the world, we need help immediately. This is a humanitarian crisis. Do something.

KOPPEL: Yes, he paints an accurate picture as far as it goes, and he used the word which I think is a key word here, namely the word terrorism. That was the magic word that caused the United States, actually, a few years after 1991 - I think in 1996 - to make common cause with some of these Somali warlords who were the, arguably, some of the greatest thugs in the world. And we made common cause with them to fight against a group that at that time was known as the Islamic Courts Union.

We felt that their danger to U.S. interests was greater than any association that we might have with the Somali warlords. I'm not sure that Somalis in general are all that eager to have, for example, U.S. forces back in Somalia. And it would take an enormous number of troops to provide the kind of security that would enable a safe distribution of food and medicine. It's a terrible, terrible dilemma. But as I said at the outset, I don't see any easy answers.

CONAN: Willy, thanks very much for the phone call.

WILLY: Can I, come on, say one more thing, Neal?

CONAN: If you make it quick, Willy. We want to give other people a chance.

WILLY: Yes, please. I know what's happened back in the '90s in Somalia. And I think this time it is 10 times worse than that one. It's a wider area and more people are starving right now.

CONAN: OK. Willy...

And, yeah, it's - we really, really appreciate it, your taking your time, guys, to do this. Thank you very much.

And, Chris Barrett, I know you were trying to get in there too.

BARRETT: Yeah, Neal, if I may, the caller and Ted raise a very important point about the problems of political control of the areas and the special problems created by a terrorist organization as ruthless as al-Shabaab. But I caution against reducing this to problems of terrorism or the problems of an essentially stateless nation, as is the case in Somalia right now regrettably. Keep in mind that the U.N.'s declaration of an emergency in this region is a majority outside of Somalia. They only declared two out of Somalia's 18 regions of famine area, and about two-thirds of the people they say are at risk. Of the 11 million people at risk in this region, most of them don't live in Somalia.

So a political solution in southern Somalia is a very narrow solution indeed. And the history of these sorts of food emergencies is a very complicated one. It doesn't reduce to a single cause. As important as the political turmoil of Somalia is, it's much broader than that. The drought that hit this year was the straw that broke a very weak camel's back. And that camel is weak, in part, because of a non-functioning state and a terrorist organization within Somalia. But it's also weak because there's very limited infrastructure. And it's also weak for global reasons, that we have unusually high global food prices right now. Wheat and maize costs 60 to 80 percent more right now in the cities of the Horn of Africa than they did a year ago.

And for families that spend half or more of their budgets on food for their families, when you increase food prices 80 percent, they can no longer afford to do it. So we have this confluence of different factors all coming together. And the political problems are an important component, but they're only one component.

CONAN: Only one component. Well, go ahead, Ted.

KOPPEL: If I may, Neal, I was just going to say, I agree, it's only one component. But it becomes a terribly important one because when you talk about this as being essentially or even purely a humanitarian crisis, you side-step the sort of central issue. Who is going to deliver the food? Who is going to ensure security for the food delivery? Who is going to maintain any kind of security in the refugee camps where that food is delivered and where medical aid is provided? We did try that 20 years ago and ended up becoming involved in some of the military, political and other aspects that made all the best humanitarian intentions in the world beside the point.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR commentator Ted Koppel and with Chris Barrett, who's agriculture and development economist at Cornell University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And, Chris Barrett, I'm sorry to cut you off.

BARRETT: That's quite all right. I completely agree with Ted. And where we focus on Somalia, the ultimate issue here is security of the people and security of relief shipments provided. This is an extraordinarily difficult task.

CONAN: And you have to remember the ships that bring in regular deliveries from the World Food Programme have to be escorted by NATO frigates to avoid being taken by Somali pirates.

BARRETT: Exactly. But the point I was trying to make is this problem extends well beyond the reach of al-Shabab. And, for example, let's look at neighboring Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, four and a half million people of the present 11.2 million in crisis, four and a half million of them live in Ethiopia. The biggest single group is in Ethiopia, not in Somalia. And in Ethiopia, however, just as recently as a few years ago, we had another crisis that had 13 million people at risk.

This year, we have even worse climate conditions that we had in that most recent crisis. And yet, rather than 13 million at risk, we have four and a half million at risk. Why? The simplest reason is that the government took seriously the need to put in place effective safety nets so that people were cushioned against, resilient against these sorts of shocks when they hit. And as a result, there's a major humanitarian problem in Ethiopia, but it's one that the international community feels it can manage.

The government has got an apparatus in place. The humanitarian organizations can get there. All of the very complicated access problems that Ted is describing and the very challenging political calculus that's been discussed on Somalia is largely absent in Ethiopia. That's a problem we can manage if we handle it promptly and we keep preparing the ground so that for future shocks, there's a social safety net and effective markets in place.

CONAN: And, Ted Koppel, in less than a minute, that also requires an active political will in a time of dire budget conflicts and absent until recently, those pictures of the starving children that Ofeibea Quist-Arcton was telling us about.

KOPPEL: No, you're absolutely right. And for every one of the countries where we see this kind of thing happening, there are plenty, unfortunately, of others. Congo, as I mention often when I'm on this broadcast, is even more of a basket case. Zimbabwe today is, for a variety of reasons, even more of a basket case. There are so many needy countries and so little available help.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, as always, thanks very much for your time today.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And, Chris Barrett, we appreciate your coming in as well.

BARRETT: Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: We were talking about - Chris Barrett is the co-author of "Food Aid After Fifty Years." Up next, the afterlife of "Harry Potter" in fan fiction. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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