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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

Hunger and Poverty in Somalia: The Starvation of the Country’s Most Vulnerable

Jenna Maunsell

Poverty is a persistent problem in Africa. An estimated 490 million people in Africa live below the poverty line. Poverty may cause lower life expectancy, health problems, lack of development, and one particularly devastating problem, starvation. Somalia is considered to be one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world. Its Gross Domestic Product per capita is 447 U.S. dollars. In comparison, the United States’ GDP per capita is 70,248 U.S. dollars. These numbers show how extreme the poverty in Somalia is. Numerous challenges continue to plague Somalia, but the issue of starvation remains the most pressing. The United Nations predicts that an additional 500,000 people will face starvation by June of 2023, pushing the total number of people battling catastrophic food insecurity in Somalia to over 700,000. The children of the country make up a majority of this staggeringly high number.

Somalia has a complicated past, involving wars, famines, violence, and droughts. During the 19th century, much of Somalia was under Italian control with the British ruling over the northwest region. However, in 1960, Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland declared independence and combined to form the United Republic of Somalia. In a coup after the assaination of the elected president in 1969, Mohamed Siad Barre assumed power, declared Somalia a socialist state, and nationalized the majority of the economy. Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, which began the Somali Civil War. Former British Somaliland declared unilateral independence from the rest of the United Republic of Somalia and the central authority in the country collapsed. Clan-based warlords then fought for control of the nation. Since the outbreak of the war in 1991, Somalia has ceased to have a government that is officially recognized on the international stage.

The lack of a central government has created an inability to effectively respond to the problems and crises that emerge in Somalia. The increased presence of al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent group based in Somalia, has exacerbated the political instability within the country. Al-Shabaab, which has links to al-Qaeda, has inflicted brutality and violence upon the regions of Somalia it controls. In the early summer of 2022, Somalia was grappling with a devastating drought. In response to this natural disaster, al-Shabaab raised taxes, furthering the plight of the suffering Somali people. Amid the famine of 2011, al-Shabaab did not allow humanitarian aid without taxation imposed on the aid agencies. There have been many initiatives led by the international community intended to weaken or eliminate the extremist group. However, al-Shabaab remains and continues to threaten any stability that forms in the struggling country. Terrorism and political violence are a fact of life in Somalia. The violent actors that exist within the borders of the country intensify the challenges that poverty and natural disasters bring the population. The absence of institutions with the strength to address the country’s poverty and crises results in more reliance on the international community and prolonged struggles for the Somali people.

Somalia’s GDP and standard of living are among the lowest in the world. Its economy relies on livestock, fishing, and agriculture. The country is reliant on its semiannual rainy seasons in order to produce food. Because of this dependence, any fluctuation in the rain levels has a direct effect on food production. The last five rainy seasons have failed to materialize completely or rainfall levels have been shockingly low, leading to dangerous implications for the population’s food supply. Livestock have died, entire harvests have failed, and people have lost their food supply and their way to make a living, causing a starvation crisis. According to Sarah Carter, one Somali child per minute is brought to a health facility for treatment of severe acute malnutrition. In the first six months of 2022, food and nutrition centers reported that 730 children had died of starvation. This only captures the reported deaths. A great portion of the deaths of Somali children go unreported since mothers across the country do not have access to formal centers and help. Starvation disproportionately affects the children of Somalia because of the demographics of the population. The World Bank found that 47 percent of the country’s population is between the ages of 0-14. The United Nations Children Fund says that severe malnutrition rates in Somali children under the age of five are higher now than during the worst famine in the 21st century, where more than a quarter-million Somalis died. These rates will only increase based on current projections. The dry season spans from January to April. During this time, the hope of a successful rainy season diminishes as current forecasts predict the rainy season will fail to begin in April. Even if there is a sufficient amount of rainfall in the rainy season, the issue of food insecurity will not be solved because it takes time for the farmers to reestablish and organize their cattle and land. The coming months in Somalia will only continue to devastate its population, particularly the country’s most vulnerable.

The international community pours aid into Somalia year after year, but the amount needed only continues to grow. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impaired low income countries’ access to food. The pandemic, along with the start of the war in Ukraine, may cause starvation and food insecurity in Somalia to worsen exponentially. However, the international community has yet to declare the crisis a famine. The United Nations has only declared a famine twice in the last decade; once in 2017 in South Sudan and then in 2012 in Somalia. They argue that the conditions for such a strong declaration have not been met. If the United Nations does declare a famine, then it is near certain that aid and humanitarian assistance will pour into the country from the international community in the coming months. For now, Somalis flee from their own country to escape starvation and instability. They are turning to countries like Kenya, where 3,000 Somalis arrive weekly.

Poverty in Somalia is multidimensional and widespread. It is the result of war, famines, droughts, violence, and many other destabilizing factors. Changes in the political landscape of the country and five consecutive insufficient rainy seasons have led to dire circumstances for the population that must be addressed in 2023. The destruction caused by natural disasters, already amplified by the length and frequency of the droughts, is only exacerbated by the insurgent extremist groups. As war wages on in Ukraine and instability in global food supply continues, food prices will continue to rise and poor countries like Somalia will continue to suffer. There is no easy solution, but the hesitancy of the UN to declare a famine will result in more deaths, most of which will be Somali children.

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