Daniel Howden: This famine is a failure of politics, not of generosity

After 9/11 it no longer mattered to the West what happened to the Somalis as long as their suffering was contained and radical elements neutralised

The explanations offered to us along with pictures of starving children in the Horn of Africa follow several well-worn threads: we are told the famine is the product of the worst drought in 60 years; that the early warning systems designed to detect crises and steer international response have failed; and, most pervasively, that it is a product of our own indifference. In its purest form there is an almost puritanical quality to the last explanation which suggests that British self-indulgence in domestic affairs such as the phone-hacking scandal or football's summer transfer window has somehow prompted the food crisis in East Africa.

The response has been alarm, fundraising and its necessary assistant, guilt. Almost completely absent has been any call for an understanding of what has really happened. The return of famine – not food insecurity, or shortage, or malnutrition – but actual starvation after a near 20-year absence is not the result of a failure of generosity, but a failure of politics.

At the centre of this crisis lies Somalia, which has for the last decade been among the top ten recipients of humanitarian aid globally. The cycle of drought in the Horn of Africa is now predictable and, to a great extent, manageable. Much has been learned since the 1980s and the poor rains across northern Kenya and Ethiopia have been prevented from creating an outright famine by the assistance programmes already in place in those countries.

The vast majority of the dead and dying have walked out of very specific areas of Somalia. The queues of panicked people in dust-blown camps, carrying two-year-olds weighing as little as new-borns, are the victims of an acute failure of international policy. A quick rehearsal of the past two decades of Somali history reminds us that we've been here before. In the 1990s' conflict, drought and famine led to a global media outcry and a massive UN response in Somalia with 30,000 foreign troops on the ground and 40 international NGOs in the south-central region where the starvation is now worst. Humanitarian assistance which ignored local politics and needed military force to be delivered was abandoned as an approach in 1995 after helping to embed a war economy that has persisted to this day.

Outside intervention since then has been incoherent, contradictory and often disastrous. What was seen as a humanitarian crisis in the 1990s came to be seen as a threat to international security after 9/11 and the longest case of total state collapse was talked up as a breeding ground for terrorists. Policy towards Somalia was governed by the logic that it no longer mattered what happened to Somalis as long as their suffering could be contained within their borders and radical elements could be neutralised.

Neighbouring Ethiopia was encouraged by the US to invade six years ago and overthrow a local Islamic courts' movement that had brought comparative peace to Mogadishu but was seen as dangerous by Washington. The ensuing occupation was catastrophic, spawning the extremist Shabab militia that is now understood to be the biggest obstacle to feeding starving Somalis.

Two years ago the head of those toppled Islamic courts, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, was invited to return to head the internationally-recognised transitional government who, by that stage, needed an African Union military force to protect him from his own former youth league members in the Shabab. A bloody stalemate followed between forces loyal to Sheikh Sharif and the Shabab, who call him an international stooge.

By any measure this government, the TFG, has been a total failure. An unelected authority whose remit runs to a few square kilometres of the capital, Mogadishu, it has been invisible during the current crisis. Its 550 MPs, paid for by international donors, have spent the past seven years squabbling over stipends and titles while bankrolling the hotels and conference centres of Djibouti and Nairobi.

Six months ago the TFG was told that donors would pull the plug on it unless the politicians could make some positive impact on the lives of their people. Instead, while the famine was brewing, the Somali president and the parliamentary speaker engaged in another pointless power struggle which ended with them giving themselves a one-year extension in office – to which the donors, including Britain, meekly assented.

While continuing support for the illusion of central government under the TFG, the Shabab were listed by the US as terrorists, which facilitated a complete withdrawal of international aid from the areas of south-central Somalia under the militia's control. The extremists in Shabab have made a terrible situation worse by threatening aid workers and trying to extort money from humanitarian agencies. But the decision to freeze all support to Shabab areas is rightly seen by many senior policy experts as a dangerous politicization of aid and a failure of humanitarianism. Belatedly this mistaken approach has been recognised and emergency aid is beginning to arrive. But thousands of ordinary people will die as this mistake is messily undone.

The policy of containment in the face of the world's most failed state has clearly not worked. Neither has the forlorn support of a corrupt and fictional central government. And yet these failures are almost entirely absent from coverage of the food crisis. In their place we are told a simpler story of starving Africans in need of Western charity, which is mercifully free of context. This is often relayed through celebrity ambassadors who have "gained perspective" during brief visits to neighbouring areas.

This wilfully uninformed approach – which also ignores British generosity, both individual and governmental – is thought to be the most the mainstream can digest. The false expectations it creates will foster apathy and cynicism in the future. There are no simple solutions: what is needed is a comprehensive review of international engagement with Somalia.

If you want to help starving Somalis, by all means give money to alleviate genuine suffering. Give a day's pay, but also give a little time to understanding what has actually happened in the hope that we are not doomed to endlessly repeat past mistakes.