A displaced woman from Somalia sits with her malnourished child at Banadir hospital in south Mogadishu in Hodan district August 1, 2011. (FEISAL OMAR)

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on U.S. foreign aid, in light of the crisis in Somalia — with opinion pieces by Sen. John Kerry, Fletcher School Professor Astier M. Almedom, Share Our Strength Founder Bill Shore,Wharton School Professor Stuart Diamond, and Executives Without Borders CEO Robert Goodwin.

There’s a narrative that goes something like this: Emotive media images and tired tales of famine-causing drought in Somalia have created “compassion fatigue,” a type of onlooker’s paralysis that dulls the fury and utter indignation that would otherwise motivate action.

That’s an insult, particularly with reference to the American public.

Think such images don’t resonate? This is a time of food insecurity, albeit much less severe, in the United States as well. One in five children in New York City reportedly goes to bed hungry while excess food goes to landfills. The causes and consequences of hunger are complex, compound and context-specific—but the lack of solutions, whether here or in Somalia, isn’t the result of a dispassionate public. It’s a failure of leadership.

On July 20, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, waited for an assessment report to confirm that “acute malnutrition among children” had reached “shocking” levels of 30 to 50 percent (and that the crude death rate among children under five had risen to 6 per 10,000 children each day, and so on) in order to officially call for $300 million for famine relief from bureaucratic donors. It is hard to imagine that, until these statistics ticked in, Bowden was unaware of the warning signs of mass starvation in Somalia. The onset of this crisis has been reported by credible sources such as Mohammed Adow since way back in May 2007. That was two years after the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction launched the Hyogo Framework of Action to reduce disaster risk and build community resilience.

How far has such U.N. leadership gotten us? If I were a Somali mother arriving in Dadaab refugee camp last week with my child, a bundle of bones in my arms, I would have real trouble making sense of Bowden’s declaration of emergency at this late hour. Once assured that my child was triaged as worthy of “therapeutic feeding” with a good chance of recovery from near-death, my thoughts would wander back to my home – rural Somalia.

My family and friends and I struggled for years to become “food secure,” looking for pasture for our camels and goats. Hardly anything grows on the scorched earth that’s been burnt by warfare; the aerial bombing and heavy artillery have turned over the topsoil, obliterating its organic matter. We tried fertilizing small patches of land for growing vegetables without success. We sold livestock faster than we could replace them, as the price of millet and sorghum rose.

My new baby didn’t grow much after his first year, having survived on breast milk. I couldn’t produce enough milk for him, and he refused to take goat’s milk as a substitute. His appetite deteriorated as he suffered repeat bouts of diarrhea, fever and vomiting. A humanitarian aid worker delivered a large can of DMK (powdered milk), which my neighbors and I shared – everyone received some in a finjal, a small espresso-sized coffee cup. That’s how we live: sharing everything and helping each other overcome hunger and illness, a day at a time. We managed to survive the first year the rains failed. The second year was tougher. Left with only few livestock, not enough milk for the children, and certainly not enough money to buy cereals, we began to contemplate abandoning our homes.

This is the fourth or fifth year of the slow onset crisis in Somalia. And that’s if you don’t count the prior years that Somalis have endured recurrent drought and periodic warfare.

And yet rural families in Somalia have always been quick to adapt and face new challenges without losing hope. The women of the Horn of Africa are particularly resilient: They are the pillars of the family, community and nation. Humanitarian agencies’ help in drilling boreholes would have secured their access to safe drinking water. Where there is water, there is life.       

But the humanitarian aid system works within bureaucratic structures that are caught in a rigidity trap that prevents it from recognizing and bolstering local capacities in a timely manner. So it’s the Somali people, including in the Diaspora, who have been organizing themselves to prevent and mitigate one crisis after another. Resilience is the capacity to anticipate and judiciously engage with catastrophic events and experiences (including periodic hunger), making meaning out of adversity and maintaining normal function without fundamental loss of identity.

A Somali mother living on the Kenyan border would do all in her powers to make sure that her children and her sister’s and neighbor’s children do not go hungry. She may even send the older ones to school in Dadaab camp where some of her relations had taken refuge. It is not in the interest of Somali mothers to see their children fight, so they excel in preventing and resolving conflicts that arise. However, the insurgent activities of Al-Shabaab, a militant group that has taken over larger parts of Somalia, have eroded the people’s resilience. Of course the U.N. established a Peace Building Commission in 2006, but its activities have not been evident in Somalia.

We have inadequate and incoherent bureaucratic international humanitarian systems, and beneath them equally inadequate and incoherent sub-systems. The crude famine criteria cited by Mark Bowden in a slow, deliberate, killing tone indicate leadership fatigue, not compassion fatigue – and with each devastating photo or story out of Somalia, it’s this that should scandalize the compassionate American public.

Astier M. Almedom is the director of the International Resilience Program at the Institute for Global Leadership and a professor in humanitarian policy and global public health at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

In this roundtable:

Sen. John Kerry: Amid budget crisis, a defense of foreign aid

Astier M. Almedom: With Somalia,what should really scandalize the public

Bill Shore: A chronic political failure on humanitarian aid

Stuart Diamond: U.S. foreign aid: Business skills needed

Robert Goodwin: A new strategy for solving America’s foreign aid problem