Today Somalia is not only the world’s most spectacular case of a failed state—it has, after all, been more than twenty years since the benighted land has had anything resembling a central government—but, thanks to the worst drought in six decades, it is what the United Nations refugee agency has described as the “worst humanitarian disaster” in the world.

Nearly half of Somalia’s population—some 3.7 million people—face starvation as famine has been declared in two regions in the southern part of the country, while another 11 million across the Horn of Africa are at risk.

Given this grim reality, the first priority of the international community is, understandably, getting relief to the victims. The United States, the largest bilateral donor to East Africa, recently added $28 million to the $431 million emergency assistance it has already provided this year, while last week the European Union sent another €27.8 million on top of the €70 million it previously sent.

However, in addressing immediate needs, attention needs to also be paid to the broader political context as well as the long-term implications of the current crisis.

Unfortunately, the Somali areas most affected by the drought and famine—Bakool and Lower Shabelle—happen to also be in the south-central part of the country which has been the backdrop of an insurgency spearheaded by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant Islamist movement, against Somalia’s dysfunctional “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG).

While al-Shabaab is far from a monolithic organization, it has a history of denying access to the areas under its control to UN relief agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Program (the subject of its responsibility for the current famine deserves separate consideration). For their part, the agencies and several nongovernmental organizations pulled out of the region last year after several aid workers were killed and al-Shabaab began imposing strict conditions on their remaining colleagues, extorting “security fees” and “taxes.”

Moreover, because al-Shabaab has been designated as an international terrorist organization by the United States and other countries, NGOs have avoided working in areas it controls for fear of running afoul of laws against providing material support to terrorist groups. Consequently, it is heartening that over the weekend US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson signaled the administration’s willingness to be flexible, acknowledging: “There are sub-sets of [al-Shabaab] that may be willing to allow humanitarian assistance to reach Somalis in need. In spite of our concerns about the organization, we are working with international organizations to explore the options to provide additional aid inside Somalia.”

Meanwhile, although Somalia’s unelected officials may be preferable to the insurgents seeking to overthrow them, but they represent, at best, the international community’s choice for the lesser of two evils. As I noted in testimony last month at a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, not only does it provide none of the services expected of a government, but it is little better than a criminal enterprise, one that its own auditors showed stole more than 96 percent of the bilateral assistance it received in the years 2009 and 2010. The findings contained in the annual report to the Security Council by the UN Sanctions Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, released just last week, were even more damning: “Diversion of arms and ammunition from the Transitional Federal Government and its affiliated militias has been another significant source of supply to arms dealers in Mogadishu, and by extension to al-Shabaab.” The monitors even found a case where an RPG launcher and ammunition, purchased for the regime under a US State Department contract, found their way into a stronghold of al-Shabaab that the African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) managed to capture. In short, the self-appointed “leaders” of Somalia consistently prove that they are more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution.

Hence it comes as no surprise that Somalis are on the move. The Dabaab refugee camp just over the border in Kenya, which was built during the last great Somali famine in 1992, to temporarily house 90,000 people nowadays hosts somewhere around 400,000, with more than one thousand additional persons arriving each day. Another 112,000 refugees have found shelter in the Dollo Ado area of Ethiopia. And these are the lucky ones: it is estimated that there are possibly 1.5 million Somalis internally displaced within their own country, with some unfortunates even literally caught in the no man’s land at outskirts of Mogadishu between the frontline positions of the insurgents and AMISOM troops.

Given the parlous conditions prevalent across the territory of the former Somali state (outside of secessionist Somaliland in the northwest and autonomous Puntland in the northeast), it is virtually assured that any Somali who crosses the border into Kenya or Ethiopia is a permanent emigrant. Since there has been no rush of third countries offering resettlement to the preexistent Somali refugee population before the famine, there is no reason to think that things will be different with the influx of new arrivals. But Kenya and Ethiopia, with complicated issues with their own ethnic Somali minorities, are hardly in a position to absorb hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of itinerant Somalis. Such a population shift threatens to upend delicate political balances as well as present new security challenges—concerns over the latter have already exposed one rift within Kenya’s national unity government between Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who opened the border as a humanitarian gesture, and ministers who oppose the move. Thus, if they are not to cause, however unintentionally, even greater harm, responses to the mass migration set in motion by the prolonged Somali crisis and now the famine need to take into account these realities.

Confronted with the dreadful specter of mass starvation, the overriding preoccupation should be on the provision of emergency relief. However, it is also incumbent upon American and European policymakers who, with increasing media coverage of the famine, will come under pressure from constituents to “do something,” to be cognizant of the political context of the crisis as well as its broader geostrategic implications as they craft their responses.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham