September 15, 2011

THE FAMINE IN Somalia continues to spread. Last week the United Nations added a sixth area of the country to the zone where starvation has become acute and said 750,000 people could die in the next four months if aid does not get through. Already, tens of thousands have perished, most of them children; hundreds more are buried every day. Some 400,000 people seeking food have flocked to Mogadishu, the capital, while hundreds of thousands more have fled to neighboring Kenya.

The international response to this terrible crisis continues to be too slow and too weak. A United Nations appeal for $2.4 billion in emergency funds in July has raised $1 billion short of that. The United States has been the most generous donor, providing some $450 million in humanitarian assistance to the wider drought zone across the Horn of Africa. The European Union and a few other countries — notably Turkey — have stepped up. But the response of much of the world — especially the African states — has been shameful. An African Union pledging conference last month attracted representatives of only 20 of its 54 countries and raised just $50 million. South Africa, the continent’s richest state, offered $1 million.

Many governments may calculate that aid will be wasted on Somalia, a country devastated by anarchy and where an extreme Islamic movement, al-Shabab, prevents food from reaching many of the starving. Yet in recent weeks a fragile opportunity to increase stability and open aid corridors to famine zones has appeared. Pressured by an offensive by African peacekeepers and the death of a top leader, al-Shabab abruptly withdrew from most of Mogadishu in early August. Last week Somalia’s internationally recognized interim government, which has been plagued by weakness and infighting, agreed with the United Nations on a road map for reforms leading to elections in a year.

Reports from Somalia say the vacuum left by al-Shabab’s retreat has been filled to a large extent by clan leaders and their militias, rather than government forces. But Somalia’s prime minister and the U.N. envoy to the country say the U.N.-backed peacekeeping force can and should be quickly expanded. Currently 9,000 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi are in Mogadishu, but the force is already authorized to grow to 12,000, and U.N. officials say five African countries are ready to send more troops. That could allow the force to move out from the capital to secure routes for aid.

What’s missing, predictably, is money as well as military equipment and logistical support to deploy the troops. That’s where the United States, the NATO alliance and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar should come in. By supporting the expansion of peacekeeping forces, foreign aid can accomplish two critical goals: pushing back an extremist movement that is allied with al-Qaeda and making possible the delivery of critically needed food for hundreds of thousands of people who may otherwise starve.