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The Hungry World

A moral dilemma for aid groups

In the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, many Somalis depend on foreign aid for their survival. But humanitarian aid workers are coming to terms with the limitations of how much good they can do in a land torn by war.

Man carrying sack of food aid

Many Somalis are dependent on food aid

Abshiro Mohammed has built a makeshift roof over his head out of canvas and wooden sticks. The thin farmer who lives in southern Somalia has to feed five children, but he doesn't know what with. And on top of the hunger comes disease.

"We don't have a latrine here, so diarrhea and cholera are spreading quickly," the farmer said. "We're all doing poorly, and there are more refugees coming - we don't know where it will all end." 

Hunger, suffering and death are ubiquitous realities of everyday life in Somalia. It has been this way for more than 20 years now, but as a consequence of the worst drought in decades, the current situation has deteriorated in large swaths of the country to a level unlike anything the east African nation has experienced before.  

Approximately 750,000 Somalis are currently on the brink of starvation, among them up to 400,000 children, according to estimates by the United Nations. Depending on the region, food reserves will run out in just a couple more weeks or months.

Calls for international aid

For the hundreds of thousands of Somalis who are fleeing to Mogadishu, the capital - which has been somewhat secured by African Union troops - or across the borders to Kenya and Ethiopia, the only hope of survival lies in emergency international aid.

"The people who come here are weak, and nobody is helping," complained Musseh Hassan, who helps run one of the estimated 200 refugee camps in Mogadishu. "We are calling on international aid organizations to quickly do something to help these people." 

Camp in Somalia

The drought has affected hundreds of thousands

The UN estimates that Somalia needs around $1 billion (724 million euros) in emergency aid to help alleviate the effects of the drought. In many of the drought-stricken regions, subsequent rainfall has created a heightened risk of cholera and other waterborne epidemics, and that demands additional precautionary measures. On a more positive note, three-quarters of the aid needed have already been covered.

Many aid organizations have capitalized on the increased media coverage of the crisis in the Horn of Africa and called for targeted donations to Somalia. Groups that have not been active in Somalia before have now begun to operate in Mogadishu alongside organizations established there long ago.

Civil war

Not only does hunger rage in Somalia but a devastating armed conflict also plagues the country. The Islamist al-Shabab movement, which sees itself as part of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, has brought much of the country outside of Mogadishu under its control. They are engaged in a brutal civil war with Somalia's transitional government and recently also with the Kenyan army.

Critics argue that delivering emergency aid outside of Mogadishu almost certainly helps al-Shabab. According to their logic, those who call themselves humanitarians only prolong the conflict and exacerbate the suffering rather than alleviate it.

Florian Westphal, the deputy communications director of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, sees the situation differently.

"You can't generally say that emergency aid prolongs conflicts," Westphal said. "But aid does represent a considerable resource in warzones, which is attractive to the belligerents."

Al Shabaab attack in Mogadishu

The civil war makes the hunger crisis worse

The Geneva Conventions allow humanitarian workers to help those in need regardless of what side of the conflict they are on. The conventions make an exception for combatants who participate directly in the conflict.

"We try to help those who need our help most urgently," Westphal said. "Sometimes that leads to conflicts, because often there are more people in need on one side of a conflict than the other."

Westphal said that in such a murky situation only decades of experience on the ground building contacts helps. For those who lack firsthand knowledge, the risk of compromising their neutrality becomes much greater.

Kickback for militias

Some aid organizations work in regions controlled by the Islamist al-Shabab.

"Food and medical treatment, that's no problem for al-Shabab so long as we don't become politically active," said a French aid worker who preferred to remain unnamed.

He said he is aware that aid may end up falling into the hands of active al-Shabab fighters, but it's a risk he and his colleagues are willing to take.

Rashid Abdi, a Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group, even goes so far as to demand direct negotiations with the Islamists.

"The Islamists, of course, want to turn the work of the aid organizations to their own advantage," Abdi said. "Shabab would want to keep a portion of the food aid, 10 percent or so - but that is the price you have to pay when you want to save hundreds of thousands of people."

The UN World Food Program (WFP), however, is not prepared to make those kinds of concessions.

"We explain to the elders and village communities over and over again that we have to remain independent," WFP spokeswoman Stephanie Savariaud said. "Those who don't have anything to eat have to receive something to eat regardless of their clan or political affiliation."

Local cartels

In addition to the complications of operating in a politically charged warzone, an internal UN report from early 2010 found that half of the WFP's food aid does not even reach hungry Somalis.

Local partner organizations and Somali WFP employees siphon off around 30 percent of the aid in order to sell it on the market or to the rebels. WFP commissioned subcontractors steal 10 percent and armed groups that control the various regions take another 10 percent, the report found. It's a business that brings in hundreds of millions of euros.

"A handful of Somali subcontractors have founded a powerful cartel," the report said. "Some of them give their profits or the food aid to armed opposition groups." 

Stolen food aid in Somalia

Much food aid never makes it to the hungry, but instead is stolen and sold

The international president of Medecins Sans Frontieres without Borders (MSF), Indian national Unni Karunakara, doubts that the crisis in Somalia can be solved with more money and aid.

"We may have to live with the reality that we will never reach many of the hungry," said Karunakara after a trip through Somalia. "Medecins Sans Frontieres has been in Somalia for 20 years and we know that if we have problems with our work, then others are simply not in the position to work at all."

Limits of humanitarian aid

Karunakaras' criticism is reminiscent of a hotly debated thesis within the aid community originally presented by the head of Medecins Sans Frontieres in Germany, Ulrike von Pilar. She posed the fundamental question: When does humanitarian aid, which sees neither perpetrators nor victims but only those in need, reach its limits? How far can an aid organization limit its reports about the conditions on the ground in order to not be denied future assistance?

Pilar's questions stem from the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. For the first and only time, MSF called for military intervention, a step that contradicts almost all the fundamental principles of humanitarian engagement. But Pilar defended her support for a military operation, arguing that doctors cannot prevent genocide and therefore have to pressure policymakers.

MSF failed with its call for intervention during the Rwandan genocide. France sent troops, but only to open "humanitarian corridors," which also allowed war criminals to escape unmolested. The example demonstrates how easily the word "humanitarian" can be abused.

German soldiers are currently engaged in "humanitarian work" in Afghanistan, which actually serves the goal of providing military assistance to one side of the conflict.

After the outbreak of the famine in Somalia, the African Union also called for military intervention by African troops to open "humanitarian corridors" - which in reality were meant to help in the fight against al-Shabab.

Author: Marc Engelhardt / slk
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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