Humanitarian Catastrophe in Somalia, With the World’s Attention on Ukraine, Suffering Is Rising Elsewhere

Ukraine isn’t the only place where children are dying because of the Russian invasion. With all attention on the war there, aid money is drying up in other regions – including in Somalia, which is experiencing a devastating drought.

By Heiner Hoffmann in Somalia


Ubah, 4, didn't survive the drought in Somalia. She died in the night after this picture was taken.
Ubah, 4, didn’t survive the drought in Somalia. She died in the night after this picture was taken. Foto: Joost Bastmeijer / DER SPIEGEL

Global Societies 

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.All Articles

A teenage girl is squatting on the dusty ground, her long robe covering her entire body, right down to her feet. Beneath the dress, blood is dripping into the sand. Everyone knows it, but she wants to keep it hidden from view. The young woman is having her period, but here in the camp, neither pads nor tampons are available – indeed there isn’t even anything to eat. So she squats on the ground, for several days running, and hopes that it will soon come to an end.


She’s surrounded by plastic tarps rippling in the wind, stretched as they are across branches bound together to create dome-shaped shelters. It is a camp for displaced people, set up by the Somalian government in the southern part of the country. A water truck comes by every now and then, but residents of the camp have to take care of everything else themselves. They all used to be cowherds, but the persistent drought has killed off their livestock, and their livelihoods. More than 4 million of the country’s population of 16 million have been affected.

Among the makeshift tents, small mounds of earth can periodically be seen. They are graves, and they used to be at the edge of the camp. But every day, dozens more people show up and build shelters for themselves. A tent city that has expanded beyond the dead.

Makeshift tents at the camp for displaced people near Kismaayo

Makeshift tents at the camp for displaced people near Kismaayo Foto: Joost Bastmeijer / DER SPIEGEL

On this Tuesday in March, yet another burial takes place. A man walks away from the tents toward the bush with what looks like a roll of material in his arms. There is a group of around a dozen men waiting a few hundred meters into the bush where they have dug a hole. The roll of material is so thin that it is hard to imagine that a body can be wrapped inside. But it is that of a four-year-old child, little Ubah, who died a few hours before, just after morning prayers.

On the previous day, DER SPIEGEL had spent time with Ubah and her mother, an extremely difficult encounter. The girl was lying in her mother’s arms, with each bone clearly visible through her skin. The child was hardly able to raise her arm. A mobile medical team had just been to the camp and had measured the circumference of Ubah’s upper arm, with the MUAC band so deep in the red zone that it almost didn’t even surpass the lowest end of the scale.

“She is doing worse and worse each day. She can hardly keep anything down anymore,” her mother Juhara Ali said. Even before malnutrition set in, Ubah had been sick, and had been partially paralyzed since birth. “She used to drink milk from our animals, that gave her strength,” said Ali. But when the animals died, starvation set in. The five-person family had no choice but to leave their home. They walked five days and five nights to reach the camp, running out of food after the second day. And when they finally arrived, there was no end to their hunger: There is no aid organization that brings food to the camp on a regular basis. On good days, they get a single meal. On bad days, there is nothing at all.

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Juhara Ali with her daughter Ubah waiting for a medical examination

Juhara Ali with her daughter Ubah waiting for a medical examination Foto: Joost Bastmeijer / DER SPIEGEL

The doctors referred Ubah to the nearest hospital, located in the port city of Kismaayo around 15 kilometers away. But it was too late. Ubah fell victim to the drought. “I will remember her as a happy girl. She was always laughing with her siblings,” says her mother. According to officials, 15 people, most of them children, have died of hunger in the region in recent weeks.

Around 500 kilometers to the north, in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, sacks of food are being loaded up. They are printed with the American flag along with the stamp USAID. They sacks are full of peas, wheat and sorghum. They are intended to help save lives, but the warehouse of the World Food Program (WFP) in the city isn’t even half full.

“We can’t do anything for the people in the camps. We are leaving them in the lurch,” said El-Khidir Daloum, the local WFP director in Somalia. And the reason is a rather banal one: There simply isn’t enough money. According to the calculations of various aid agencies, only 3 percent of the humanitarian aid Somalia needs has thus far been met. Which means that 97 percent is missing – which translates into people dying of hunger. Like Ubah.

And more recently, aid supplies that have already been paid for are also missing. Almost half of the food that the WFP distributes to drought victims in Somalia used to come from Ukraine. Such a delivery was supposed to have arrived on March 10 – 1,188 tons of peas for famine-struck regions in Ethiopia and Somalia. The delivery had been scheduled to depart from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, which is, like the rest of the country, under attack from the Russians. A message was sent to the WFP planners in Mogadishu that the arrival of the shipment had been delayed to March 15. But this deadline came and went as well, and the delivery never arrived. And the people of Somalia continue to suffer.


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A water truck occasionally shows up at the camp, but little else.

A water truck occasionally shows up at the camp, but little else. Foto: Joost Bastmeijer / DER SPIEGEL

In other instances, the AFP logisticians at least know what happened to the freight. “There were some deliveries promised to us by donors that were suddenly rerouted toward Ukraine,” Daloum said. WFP headquarters in Rome confirms that some deliveries were rerouted to Ukraine instead of continuing to the crisis regions for which they had originally been intended. But, WFP headquarters say, those diversions had no effect on the provision of aid in those countries since sufficient reserve supplies were on hand. Still, because of the war in Ukraine, it has become increasingly difficult to procure fresh supplies. Hunger in Europe is now competing with hunger in Africa. It is now possible to find victims of Vladimir Putin’s violence in every corner of the world.

Deliveries aren’t the only problem. The World Food Program and other aid agencies are also facing the challenge of rapidly rising prices. Their budgets no longer go as far as they used to, meaning they can help far fewer people. In some African countries like Somalia, prices had exploded in recent months anyway, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many people are no longer able to afford even the dietary basics. Drought at home, war abroad: It’s a toxic mixture.

Many planned visits to Somalia by senior donors have been cancelled in recent weeks, said local WFP coordinator Daloum. “That means we are no longer on the radar. That’s unfair. We have deep sympathy for the people in Ukraine, they don’t deserve what they are going through. But the people of Somalia don’t deserve it either.”

“It is currently extremely difficult to raise money. Many potential donors say that the war in Ukraine is consuming a lot of resources,” said another high-ranking United Nations official. “We should continue prioritizing, but we are slowly running out of criteria.” Aid workers have started to take a closer look at where rain is most likely to fall soon, since people there at least have a chance of survival – and some organizations have begun focusing what remains of their efforts on those locations.

“The war in Ukraine has distracted attention from the catastrophic drought in Somalia,” wrote the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) earlier this month. That became abundantly clear on a recent Wednesday evening on the other side of the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. The country is still suffering from a brutal civil war, with the UN describing the situation in the country as “still one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.”

A major donor conference was scheduled to bring in money to make a dent in the suffering. Conference organizers warned ahead of the gathering that suffering in other parts of the world cannot be ignored despite the war in Ukraine. But in the end, only a third of the 3.9-billion-euro target was collected. The UN expressed “disappointment” over the result.

An aid convoy delivering material to provide shelter for Ukrainian refugees

An aid convoy delivering material to provide shelter for Ukrainian refugees Foto: Swen Pförtner / dpa

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, international organizations had been facing increased difficulties with raising money. According to the European Commission, need for humanitarian aid is at an all-time high, and new crises are continually popping up. Money for Ukraine has not, thus far, been diverted from budgets for other regions. But the gap between the money available and the global need continues to grow.

Indeed, global warming is essentially transforming large regions of Africa into unlivable wasteland. After years of economic improvement in many countries on the continent, famine has suddenly returned. And those crises have now been joined by a humanitarian catastrophe right in the heart of Europe, triggered by Putin’s merciless invasion of Ukraine. The world is bleeding from a growing number of wounds and the rich countries of the world are running out of bandages.

March is one of the more decisive months of the year, with many countries in the process of approving their budgets, as is the case in Germany. And extremely disturbing signals are coming from Washington, D.C. On the one hand, the U.S. is making $4.1 billion available to victims of the war in Ukraine, but at the same time, the humanitarian budget for the rest of the world is to be reduced by $1 billion relative to last year. Numerous aid organizations have voiced their vehement opposition to the move.

Germany’s budget, presented earlier this month, is similar. There is to be a slight increase in the money available for emergency aid, likely a byproduct of the war. But significant cuts are to be made elsewhere, with the Development Ministry set to lose 800 million euros in funding, pending ongoing negotiations.

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Transition aid has been particularly affected, a term referring to measures that go beyond emergency aid. Such funds are used to dig wells, for example, or support efforts at expanding drought resistant agricultural practices and creating jobs for the displaced.

In 2020, funding for such measures in the German budget amounted to 1 billion euros, but that sum has been cut in half in this year’s budget. “Given the rising number of crises, this development is concerning,” says the non-governmental organization ONE. The new budget has also raised hackles within the Development Ministry in Berlin, DER SPIEGEL has learned.

The next major donor conference, for Afghanistan, is on Thursday. Syria is scheduled for May. Even before Putin’s invasion, it had become more difficult to raise the required funds. But the war has worsened the situation. The Russian tanks and bombs aren’t just destroying residential buildings in the cities of Ukraine. The war is also killing children in Somalia. 

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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