Poverty and Famine in Somalia: The Root Causes

March 22, 2013
Food Crisis
Famine in Somalia, just like poverty, is mostly man-made and thrives in times of conflict and unrest. What the past few hundred years have taught us is that without stability and peace there is a pretty dim prospect for any kind of development: economic, human or social. What is typical of the crisis, like the other Least Developed Countries (LDCs), is the extreme poverty its population lives in that worsens the situation.

Conflicts & limited resources

Whenever food prices go up, as it did recently (by 300%), the state of poverty in which a big share of the population lives in makes it very hard for them to buy food. To help with that, conflicts, warlords and clans in Somalia make it more difficult to distribute whatever resources and food the country has.

Each clan will obviously seek to keep as much for itself as possible, unless a compromise or agreement is made with another clan. But as you’re about to see, compromises are rare and famine in Somalia is only getting worse.

Clans and scarce resources

Clan identity & fighting for resources...

Since the collapse of the last Somali government in 1991, most of the fights have been over resources such as land and water. Basically the most fundamental resources to survive. Tribes and clans have re-emerged as the form of social and political order and over time the situation has proved not as violent as depicted in many movies, especially in comparison to other countries. Clans are now the last type of safety net for many Somalis.

... And aggravating poverty and famine in Somalia

The problem is that clan identity has become a resource for political power. Whoever can claim to represent a clan would have the right to claim some local power with the resources that go with it. This way, ethnic minorities are taken advantage of when new clans pretend to represent them just to strengthen their power. Minorities are then even more marginalized than before and get even less resources – to begin with water and food – than the rest of the population. This makes delivering aid to the right people terribly more complicated.

In other cases, ethnic minorities are not organized in any clan whatsoever and thus they can be simply kicked out of any resourceful land by whatever clan that comes by. This means more clashes, more victims and refugees, more destitution and bigger famines. The clan organization of Somalia works to some extent as a social order but it's by no means a way to redistribute resources with a minimum of equality.

The World Bank, the IMF and the famine in Somalia

‍Refugees from famine in Somalia
‍‍Refugees from famine in Somalia

Damages of neoliberal reforms

In the 1980s and 1990s, the World Bank and the IMF were planning to implement their usual plan to spur macroeconomic stability and development, thinking that this would "trickle down" to the people. This is effectively the basis of neoliberal thinking, proven incomplete – or very flawed and biased – since the end of the 20th century.

What it caused instead was more poverty that made the food crisis even worse because when prices went up lately the Somalis couldn't afford to buy as much food as before.

From theory to practice

As usual the problem is how macroeconomic development is achieved (or forced). In theory, it looks fairly reasonable but it reveals as well the neoliberal ideology: currency devaluation for cheap exports and cheap labor, trade liberalization by opening the borders to world trade (and to global competitors), reducing budget deficits through massive cuts in the public sector and reduction of social services.

Now, there are different ways for governments to increase their revenue and the Chinese case showed that it's best to maintain basic social safety nets whenever possible. The population is indeed most vulnerable when massive reforms are underway and it's a wise investment to protect it in order to preserve the stability of the country.

The result? Less income, more expensive food

Obviously whatever Somali private sector there was, these local companies stood no chance against global competition. The reason why the East Asian development model would be better is that temporary semi-open borders allow local companies to develop over time until they’re able to face competition. Instead what happened is that these macroeconomic measures hardly promoted any economic growth, and made poverty much worse with increasing inequalities.

Unemployment, extremely limited wages and higher food prices were but a few consequences. So Somalis ended up with less money and more expensive food. So much for solving both the causes of poverty and famine in Somalia in one stone’s throw. It looks more like the Somalis have received the stone right in their faces.

Trade and the marginalization of Somalia

Maintaining dependency and unfair trade

The group of the least developed countries, including Somalia, are excessively dependent on primary products (e.g. food) that are often produced by rich countries. This is directly related to the way globalization occurred and how a partial form of international trade was imposed on poorer countries. A form of trade which gains are certainly not equally distributed and that contributes to maintain poorer countries in their backwards state.

In fact globalization has somewhat contributed to marginalize even more countries such as Somalia, which had no real possibility to develop an export sector as recommended by international organizations. Somalis are now dependent on western crops to survive and that’s definitely to the advantage of someone.

The dilemma that causes famine in Somalia

Development is a complicated topic, of course, as no one wishes western farmers to go unemployed, but their governments have made completely contradicting promises to both the developing world and their own people. In the end a choice has to be made, and in the end the system is unfair with rich countries often taking advantage of the poor ones.

Experts often say that Somalia and the other LDCs should diversify their economy, engage more in international trade and develop their infrastructures. They’re a hundred percent right. But these countries need either a strong government to do all that, or a lot of help (not just emergency aid) to develop so many aspects of their economy all at once.

An entire country to build

To take just a few examples, no further trade is possible for countries such as Somalia as long as a decent roads, ports and all the stocking system that goes with it are built. It means as well energy and water for the construction sector. All this implies the presence of qualified workers that they don’t have.

All this means: “you need at least 20 years to start developing your country”. There is no magic bullet to development and poverty reduction; it’s a long and a difficult process that requires loads of efforts and determination.

Everyone for himself...?

After all, international trade happened pretty fast and neoliberals were convinced that by just opening the borders, money and wealth would flow and be created just by magic everywhere. If you believe this, then you forgot to look at who benefited from this opening of trade barriers and borders. And who benefits even from the humanitarian aid business (… spoiler alert: the Western agriculture and related shipping companies).

It’s not about evil companies or governments, even less about a conspiracy, it’s just that everyone is unsurprisingly seeking to protect their own interests in this world. That’s all. But then the result is that things like famine in Somalia have much worse consequences than they would normally have when droughts happen.

The impact of the war and the civil war

Soldier in the conflict in Somalia
‍Soldier in the conflict in Somalia

The Ethiopia-Somalia war (aka the Ogaden War)

Somalia invaded Ethiopia in 1977 in a bid to realize an old dream since its independence: the annexation of the Ogaden territory in Ethiopia, mostly inhabited by an ethnic Somali population. The region is officially within the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia, a part of the nine other ethnic regional states that make up Ethiopia.

The Ogaden region is the closest to Somalia and thus well in the Horn of Africa and prone to its natural disasters: from droughts (local herders claim to have lost 70 to 90% of their cattle in the last 10 years) to massive floods like in 2005.

A major African war, a major famine as outcome

Back to the war then, with the Somalis attacking when Ethiopia was going through major political unrest and social transformation (i.e. a socialist revolution). Losing this war would have meant losing 1/3 of their territory. This is another Cold War conflict with the USSR siding with Ethiopia, despite the Soviets being a longtime ally of Somalia. But it was also one of the major wars in Africa. A particularly destructive one, and one that takes decades to come back from.

It’s often considered that the fiasco of the Ogaden War was the catalyst of the falling apart of the Somali state. With the collapse of the Somali state came more violence, chaos, poverty and an intensification of famine in Somalia. Once more famine remains in great part a man-made catastrophe. All of the 1980s was a game of alliances between Ethiopia and opposition groups to the Somalian government, which ended up in its downfall in 1991. From then on, the Somali state was no more.

The impact of civil war on the famine crisis in Somalia

The unbelievable chaos in the country is very complex and just can’t be summarized in one line or two. What makes no doubt, though, is that it contributes to aggravate poverty and famine in Somalia. Among classic explanations, there is the problem of clan leaders who traditionally seek power and refuse compromise. Then, the organization in clans itself is often viewed as a barrier to state-building.

Between the threat and protection of clans

With so many local leaders, you can count on the people itself being wary of a powerful central government. Even if the situation isn’t so much better today, at least one is somewhat protected within his own clan. Every now and then Ethiopia is also accused of helping armed groups or organizations that seek local power (thus helping to destabilize the country).

State collapse - an impact on famine in Somalia?

Do they really need a state?

Then there is a more complex level of understanding. One aspect is to look at the many failed attempts to reestablish a central state in Somalia. First the presence of a central state is far from being a guarantee of peace, as you can see in many other African countries where rebel groups challenge the central authority using violence. Actually Somalia has fairly peaceful and even lawful places, even if it changes over time. Armed conflicts are often more frequent and worse in Somalia's closest neighbors.

In fact state-building efforts generate more conflict than anything else since it creates groups that win local power (and seats in the hypothetical Parliament) over others through necessary compromises. But of course these compromises are never obtained and thus conflicts appear.

And what is a state for?

The other clash is with how foreigners and Somalis understand the state. For foreigners it’s a condition for development and infrastructure, as stated by all the major international organizations (i.e. World Bank, IMF & the UN). Having a working state is also a condition for receiving foreign aid.

For Somalis the state is a way to accumulate power, to exploit and dominate the population while embezzling all the aid money for oneself (i.e. the elite). To them it certainly doesn't rhyme with ending poverty or famine in Somalia. But the heart of the matter is that in the end… both pro- and anti-state accounts are true, given the experience of blood-thirsty states in many Central African countries or elsewhere throughout history.

Conflicts and the Somalian state

The Horn of Africa is populated by an extremely diverse population, ethnicity-wise. This creates many conflicts, that are intensified by the fact that the borders of these countries were cut out with a blind ruler by former colonialists. 

This new lines have forced many groups to live together completely out of the blue and led them to fight for central political power. But contrary to the stereotype, conflicts in Somalia aren’t that widespread or fierce.

In fact, they tend to be very brief and “cost” less in blood and damages than other African conflicts. That’s because clan leaders and businessmen profit more from trade today than they might have from crime and violence in the past.

Still, even a purely "paper state" (or ghost state) recognized by international authorities would be of great help for Somalia to be eligible to receive international aid. If not the causes, at least the effects of famine in Somalia could then be relieved much more effectively, so long as the money is targeted and doesn’t disappear by magic. Finally as far as as trade goes, more intensive and systematic exchanges throughout the country can only bring more peace, better distribution of resources and goods and thus ultimately less famine in Somalia.


  • ‍The Ethiopia-Somalia War of 1977 Revisited, Gebru Tareke, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 2000
  • Financing Terrorism or Survival?: Informal Finance and State Collapse in Somalia, and the US War on Terrorism, Khalid M. Medani, Middle East Report 2002
  • State Collapse in Somalia: Second Thoughts, Ken Menkhaus, Review of African Political Economy 2003
  • Differences That Matter: The Struggle of the Marginalised in Somalia, Christian Webersik, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 2004
  • The Problems of Commodity Dependence, Mohammad A. Razzaque et al., Commodity Prices and Development 2007
  • Marginalization of LDCs and Small Vulnerable States in World Trade, Bijit Bora et al., Commodity Prices and Development 2007
  • Conceptualising the Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature, Jonathan Di John, Crisis States Research Centre - Working Paper 2008
  • Failures of the State Failure Debates: Evidence from the Somali Territories, Tobias Hagmann, Markus V. Hoene, Journal of International Development 2009
  • Military Power and Food Security: A Cross-National Analysis of Less-Developed Countries, 1970-1990, Stephen J. Scanlan and J. Craig Jenkins, International Studies Quarterly 2001
  • The Economics of Failed, Failing, and Fragile States: Productive Structure as the Missing Link, Erik S. Reinert et al., Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics no. 18, 2009
  • Violence & Social Order beyond the State: Somalia & Angola, Jutta Bakonyi and Kirsti Stuvøy, Review of African Political Economy 2005

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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