Q+A: The headaches of getting aid to famine-stricken Somalia

Thu Jul 28, 2011 12:53pm EDT

An internally displaced Somali woman baths her child outside their shelter at a camp in capital Mogadishu, July 27, 2011. REUTERS/Omar Faruk

An internally displaced Somali woman baths her child outside their shelter at a camp in capital Mogadishu, July 27, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Omar Faruk

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LONDON/NAIROBI, July 28 (AlertNet) - Aid groups, which have been clamoring for money to help famine-stricken Somalia, are struggling to reach millions in the affected areas.

Some 3.7 million Somalis risk starvation in two regions of south Somalia controlled by Islamist al Shabaab militants. Yet more than 2 million of them have not received any help.

Here are some problems facing aid delivery in Somalia.

WHY IS AL SHABAAB'S POSITION ON AID SO CONFUSING?

Because it is divided. Al Shabaab is not a cohesive organization and its members disagree on a range of issues, not least whether to allow Western aid agencies into its territory.

"Some of the Shabaab leaders ... answer to their clans and communities in their areas of control," Ken Menkhaus, political science professor at Davidson College in the United States, told AlertNet. "They care about getting food to their people and have a record of working with aid agencies.

"Others are constituency free -- they come from other parts of the country or from abroad and tend to be indifferent to the costs of their policies on local populations. The famine is making this split crystal clear."

Al Shabaab has blamed food aid for creating dependency. In February 2010, the group ordered the World Food Program to leave. In the same year, it expelled three aid agencies, accusing them of spreading Christian propaganda.

Al Shabaab lifted the food aid ban earlier this month, saying agencies with no hidden agenda were free to operate in their areas. But then it said expelled agencies remained banned.

Wary of the failure that famine implies, the insurgents have accused the United Nations of exaggerating the severity of the drought in the south and politicizing the crisis.

"Many Somalis in southern Somalia will die either under al Shabaab control or escape the region to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia or even become IDPs (internally displaced) in small areas controlled by ASWJ (Ahlu Sunna Waljamaca, a pro-government group) and the TFG (transitional federal government)," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. "Either way, this damages al Shabaab's image and weakens its control."

WHAT IS STOPPING AID FROM BEING QUICKLY SCALED UP?

ACCESS: The lack of clarity about humanitarian access means many aid agencies are operating cautiously. As one aid worker said: "The ones that are still there are trying to fly under the radar. They are trying to operate without getting kicked out."

Even if al Shabaab in Mogadishu called for unconditional access for aid groups, there is no guarantee that local commanders, who might have different views, would fall in line.

"Then there's the assumption that the message is even getting down to those field grunts and their captains," one aid worker wrote in a blog.

"Or the notion that some 16-year-old with an AK-47, who's never been to school but has spent the last 10 years being told that Westerners are pillaging his country and deserve to die, will pay any attention to some recent order from someone he's never heard of, when he sees an NGO Land Cruiser drive past."

Given the way Somalia has been carved up by clan leaders and militias, access has to be negotiated and re-negotiated every step of the way, and that takes time. Even so, not all al Shabaab factions are hostile to aid groups. The International Committee of the Red Cross has, notably, been able to operate.

INSECURITY: Not only is Somalia awash with guns, but there are concerns about landmines and reports of jihadist training camps.

To scale up, aid groups need to reinforce their teams, ideally with international staff with experience of working in other emergencies, but the history of aid worker abductions and killings in the country is a strong deterrent.

In 2008, 37 humanitarian workers were killed in Somalia, accounting for two-thirds of such deaths globally, according to the European Commission.

WFP, which is channeling food through local groups, says Somalia is the most dangerous environment it is working in.

LOGISTICS: UNICEF airlifted several tonnes of food and medicine to rebel-held Baidoa earlier this month and WFP airlifted more food to Mogadishu on Wednesday. Others have been trucking supplies in from neighboring Kenya. But two decades of conflict has damaged Somalia's infrastructure.

WHAT OTHER PROBLEMS DO AID AGENCIES FACE?

Pressure to pay "taxes" for access and security is a key concern. For example, al Shabaab had at one stage demanded that WFP sack female staff and pay thousands of dollars for security.

And it's not just WFP. One former aid worker told AlertNet his organization refused to give in to demands for bribes, but the reality of working in Somalia meant local staff felt compelled to hand over cash to make their lives easier.

Another occupational hazard is the risk of food aid being stolen, and the pressure to hire certain individuals purely because of their all-important clan links.

Aid groups planning to return to Somalia face the added task of rebuilding their logistics, recruiting staff and forging ties with communities made suspicious by their expulsion.

CAN AID GROUPS FALL FOUL OF ANTI-TERROR LAWS?

Laws passed in the United States and Britain after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and July 7, 2005 bombings in London outlaw "material support" to foreign organisations designated as terrorist groups -- including al Shabaab.

Aid agencies are worried about falling foul of these laws if their aid indirectly ends up in al Shabaab hands. They are nervous their activities may leave them open to criminal prosecution. It could be as simple as inadvertently hiring trucks from contractors with links to al Shabaab.

They are also concerned that funding from the United States -- the world's biggest donor -- will be limited simply because al Shabaab controls famine-hit regions.

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