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29/07/2011 19:10 BST | Updated 28/09/2011 06:12 BST

Famine In Somalia: It's The Politics...Stupid

"Here we go again". These words should have been heard in November last year. Not since. That's when the drought early warning lights flashed in Eastern Africa. No one should be saying it now. But now we are seeing pictures of starving Somali babies - pictures that we were promised we would never see again.

"Here we go again". These words should have been heard in November last year. Not since. That's when the drought early warning lights flashed in Eastern Africa. No one should be saying it now. But now we are seeing pictures of starving Somali babies - pictures that we were promised we would never see again.

The aid agencies are out with their begging bowls as if this had never happened before. To be fair, some of the best have been issuing alerts for some time based on the early warning systems which measure rainfall and food prices. They were put in place after the Ethiopian famine of 1984. The alarm sounded in 1999, 2002, 2005 and 2008 and each time the response arrived, but often late.

Drought can cause food shortages and price rises. But drought does not automatically mean famine. Famine is cause by politics - when war or governments prevent people moving or trading. And politics in this region are deadly and remain deadlocked. If we want to stop seeing starving Somali babies on our TV screens our governments will have to engage with al-Shabaab. America refuses to do that because it means abandoning the present Somali 'government'. This is a powerless collection of individuals who live mostly in Nairobi, control less than a square mile of Somali territory, and has achieved nothing.

The rest of the world must deal with Somalia as it is - a fractious society and a fractured state. Somalis will probably never agree on a single leader, a single party, or a single government. Since 1991, attempts to create a national government from the outside have failed again and again. Let the pieces of Somalia fall where they will, and engage with them locally, generously and pragmatically.

There are shortages but no famine in the Ethiopian Highlands, Somaliland, or in Puntland, the north eastern part of Somalia. That is because people are able to move around and the governments ensure trade continues and food reaches those who need it. Famine seems to have only occurred in Southern Somalia where a failed government pretends to rule but al-Shabaab actually controls. Kenya compounds the problem by refusing to let people cross into northern Kenya.

But what is happening in the Ogaden, the Ethiopian lowlands? Almost entirely populated by Somalis, it has been fenced off and closed to outsiders for years because Ethiopia fears it might be infiltrated by anti-Ethiopian insurgents. Atrocities by Ethiopian troops are reported but cannot be verified. If the rest of the region is suffering, the closed Ogaden may be hiding an even larger disaster.

The Corrupt Bookseller of Juba

I am much more shocked to learn of Macmillan's corruption than that of British Aerospace. One has the air of a venerable old bookseller involved in global education, the other is an arms manufacturer which profits from war. Both have admitted to paying millions in bribes to gain contracts in Africa. No doubt they called them 'facilitation fees' or some such euphemism. But Macmillan's scam was in pre-independent South Sudan. It is somehow particularly distasteful to see a British company spreading its corruption in a country not yet born. It also means that any British minister, company or NGO which tries to lecture Africa on corruption can now be rightly told: "Physician, heal thyself!"

Little Britain drives away its friends

If you wanted to set up an organisation to alienate as many of Britain's friends in the world as you could, you could not do better than the UK Border Agency, the Home Office organisation which controls visas to Britain. We hear so many horror stories at RAS that I have come to believe that the UK Border Agency's secret mission is to wreck all relations between Britain and Africa. Here's their latest effort:

The Africa Educational Trust, a small but smart organisation that delivers education to parts of Africa that are in difficulties, is trying to bring over a student from South Sudan to start post graduate studies at Warwick University in September. He has been accepted and he has a full scholarship - all costs covered by AET from a programme paid for by South Sudan Government with British aid.

But he has a Canadian passport. He cannot apply for a visa in South Sudan so he went to Nairobi. There the Border Agency says he has to go to Canada to get a visa. Naturally he went to the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi but was told there was nothing they could do. So he went back to Juba and asked the UK office - not yet an embassy then. He was told he has to fly to Canada and apply there. So - on our taxes - he will have to fly from Juba to Nairobi to Heathrow to Ottawa, wait for his visa to be granted, then come back through Heathrow to Nairobi and get home to South Sudan. Then in September he will fly to Heathrow and actually be allowed to enter the country. Now I call that a really good use of British aid.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society

This blog was originally posted on African Argument