The famine in Somalia is a human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. But the loss of life depicted in the news reports masks other losses: there is the loss of shame—by the warring factions whose violent appetites continue to ravage the country from within; and there’s the loss of perspective by the geopolitical forces that have cynically stoked civil war under the banner of “fighting terror”; and there’s the loss of hope among the ordinary people caught in the crossfire.
The United Nations’ declaration of famine in Somalia highlighted a desperate need for international assistance, but also exposed how aid money fits into Washington’s political arsenal.
Early on, various international aid agencies waffled over the logistics of serving areas controlled by the militant group al-Shabaab. Not only was there fear that militias could disrupt or endanger the aid missions; under a much-maligned State Department policy, the US government could potentially prosecute groups that engaged with Shabaab for providing “material benefit” to terrorists. Last week the State Department eased its restrictions under mounting public pressure. But according to the Huffington Post, many NGOs are still confused and fearful of getting ensanred in the counter-terrorism dragnet.
While al-Shabaab has posed a real threat in some areas, the more fundamental barriers to effective assistance are not the creation of any insurgent group. For years, U.S. domination of the region has fueled unrest as well as cynicism toward international intervention.
Long before this famine was declared, in 2009, CNN reported that the White House was holding aid agencies hostage to the war on terror:
Kiki Gbeho, head of office for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia, said the United States is reviewing whether its aid helps fund Al-Shabaab.
The U.N. office, in a report issued in September, said the U.S. delay in reaching a decision on humanitarian funding “is already impacting on many agencies and their programmes.”
The United Nations estimates that 60 percent of the people it needs to reach with emergency assistance live in areas controlled by Al-Shabaab.
“According to humanitarian principles, we have to serve people and need to deal with those in charge,” Gbeho said.
The counterterrorism card may not play the same way this time. The recent abrupt withdrawal of Shabaab forces from Mogadishu could open new avenues for humanitarian aid distribution. On the other hand, the fighters could simply be shifting toward guerrilla tactics, and the capital remains exposed to abuse and deprivation at the hands of the notoriously dysfunctional transitional regime.
Regardless of the current security situation, a bigger crisis driving the famine is a dismal cycle of war and international intervention—in which humanitarian acts serve as political cover, according to columnist and analyst Rasna Warah at Kenya’s Daily Nation:
Aid to governments often has the net effect of suppressing local economies and initiatives. In Somalia, for instance, [author and former aid worker Michael Maren] noted that food production was suppressed by food aid, as farmers had no incentive to grow their own food. Aid also makes governments less accountable to their own people….
Donor aid also reduces countries’ sovereignty. Aid is the most effective (and cost-effective) way in which foreign donor countries control other countries without being labelled as colonialists. It leads to bizarre situations where a donor country — and even more alarmingly, an international aid agency — sets government policy for a poor country, while presidents, ministers and permanent secretaries look on helplessly.
Yet the connection between international aid—which could be vital in situations like the famine—and the problems that have rendered Somalia a so-called “failed state” isn’t necessarily a neo-imperialist plot as much as it is a reflection of a geopolitical status quo that Washington has imposed on the region since the early 1990s.
A Famished Country and a Well-Fed War
Humanitarian aid was a pretext for U.S. military intervention in 1992 under the first Bush administration. After a hasty withdrawal under Clinton following the “Black Hawk down” incident, the U.S. continued to loom large in Somalia, eventually supporting an invasion by Ethiopia in 2006. Today, the Obama administration maintains its presence in the Horn of Africa through counter-terrorism operations (along with a crackdown on “piracy” along the coast), typically in cooperation with the Transitional Federal Government and the African Union-led AMISOM forces.
Abdi Aynte, a Somali-American independent political analyst, told Colorlines that U.S. foreign policy has impeded the emergence of an independent legitimate government:
Somalia’s fundamental problem is statelessness, or the absence of state institutions. To mitigate this, the international community, US included, can help Somalis rebuild such institutions. Unfortunately, the US is currently employing what it calls “a dual track policy” which, among other things, encourages “local actors” (read: clans, groups, anyone) who controls a piece of land to engage directly with the US. This goes diametrically the opposite to building strong central state institutions. This effectively balkanizes Somalia. And the policy has had a deleterious impact on Somalia’s statehood.
Certainly, no country’s foreign policy can ever be devoid of politics. But the sheer enormity of the U.S. presence in the region means Washington’s mission to “stabilize” Somalia further erodes the institutional foundation of the country it purports to be rescuing.
Thinking Outside Disaster
Though food donations are trickling into Somalia, corruption and external manipulation continue to bleed Somali society dry. Abdi Samatar, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota specializing in the Horn of Africa, said that Somalia’s future will require “the reconstruction project of a government that’s free and that’s accountable to its people,” which he called “the best defense against terrorists, or famine, for that matter. And that’s what the world needs to focus on, beyond the famine.”
Somalia could still benefit from international assistance, he added—perhaps through partnership with regional powers like South Africa—but Somali-led political movements must be at the helm of the recovery. Referring to the Arab Spring uprisings, Samatar predicted that in the coming months, “I’m quite hopeful that once we see breathing space, the people will march. And whether it will be more peaceful than places like Syria and elsewhere, it’s open to speculation at this stage.”
Though the media scarcely pays attention to them, those elements do exist in Somalia. Several years ago, civil society groups experienced a brief peace and worked relatively freely after the Islamic Courts Union ousted CIA-backed militants. (The moment of stability soon evaporated amid the Ethiopian invasion.)
More recently, networks of civil society groups have partnered to establish a formal dialogue with the transitional government as well as with European officials. Representatives of these organizations issued a list of demands to the U.N. Security Council in May, calling for an international commitment to immediate humanitarian needs while respecting “a Somali-led and consensus-based transitional process.”
Women-led groups are a striking example of Somalis making vital but unrecognized contributions to rebuilding the country. Though women lead the majority of local organizations handling humanitarian assistance, they are all but invisible in the political leadership, according to Khadija O. Ali, a former member of the Somali Transitional National Parliament, argues in Foreign Policy in Focus that despite the acute impact of conflict and poverty on women and children, “with continued, systemic UN and Western support, the Somali Transitional Federal Government continues to exclude women from all decision-making arenas.” The marginalization of gender issues, she added, is another sign that the international actors are propping up “business as usual” at the expense of democracy in Somalia.
When this crisis passes, the U.S. will still cast a long shadow over Somalia’s future. But as the country’s tragedy plays out on the world stage this summer, it might expose the failed foreign policy agenda behind the “failed state”—and give Somalis the space they need to build toward actual justice.
As Samatar put it, “a government that is at peace with itself is also at peace with the world. A government that’s at peace with its people also can provide for help for its people when they need it desperately, like this famine.”