In the Somali town of Baidoa, aid workers glean a picture of the situation in Shabab-held areas from newly-arrived refugees. But the hungry and desperate are not always good sources of accurate information, they say. And the unusually long drought has caused donors to question their own assumptions about how to determine a famine.
“We are in uncharted territory,” said Kate Foster, the British ambassador to Somalia.
A senior United States official, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating humanitarian partners, praised the I.P.C.’s work but said its latest findings called into question if “the system is working any more.”
In interviews, many experts lamented that the intense focus on a famine declaration was distracting from widespread suffering and death already taking place. According to the I.P.C. at least 1.5 million Somalis are already in “phase four” — not quite famine, but enough to cause widespread deaths.
“Waiting for a famine to be declared is not the right approach,” Mr. Lopez said.
The deteriorating situation has created a conundrum for aid groups in Somalia, causing them to ratchet up their language to generate a sense of urgency, but stopping short of using the unqualified ‘F-word’.
“We keep changing the language from ‘forecast famine’, to ‘risk of famine’, to ‘near famine’,” said Mr. Saraf, the aid worker. “But that confuses the message and impedes resources coming in. It’s like a sword hanging over your head — everyone is waiting for it to fall.”
What matters for many Somalis is how quickly more help will arrive.
At Baidoa’s main hospital, Dr. Said Yusuf admits at least eight patients every day to a ward that is filled with malnourished, sickly infants. Often, he said, parents arrive carrying bundles that they tell medical workers contain their unconscious children.