The aid agency official looked at me across the table, lowered his voice and spelt out the situation: “hundreds of thousands of people are going to die…and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
It is not that donations towards famine relief in Somalia have been overtly inadequate across the board, although certain states such as Italy (putting up just $9.5 million) and South Africa (a pathetic $1.2 million) have utterly failed in their moral responsibility to halt the ever-growing humanitarian catastrophe. In the UK public donations have surpassed $78 million and even in Kenya, itself affected by the drought, normal people have dug deep to the tune of some $7million for their Somali neighbours. Governments and regional groupings have also been rising to the challenge; the US is leading with $593 million, followed by the EU with a collective $267 million.
More funds are desperately needed – but by far the most critical issue is that aid cannot reach eighty percent of the areas where it is needed. This is largely due to Al-Shabab, the vile Islamist militia that is blocking aid deliveries, preventing refugees from escaping and attacking areas controlled by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). However it is not alone in hampering the humanitarian relief effort: a recent report from Human Rights Watch highlights how the TFG itself, along with allied militia such as Ras Kamboni and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama’a (backed by Ethiopia) and others backed by Kenya, have all prevented civilians in their areas from receiving assistance, either actively through their oppressive control mechanisms or inadvertently through their military activities and damage to infrastructure.
So far, attempts to halt the various overlapping conflicts between these groups and protect those caught in the crossfire have been woefully inadequate. The beleaguered UN-mandated African Union (AU) peacekeeping force has been constantly beset by inadequate resources and ill discipline. Even with the promised 3000 extra troops from Sierra Leone and Djibouti, the force will stand at just 12 000, far short of the 20 000 estimated to be required, and authorised by the UN. The recent murder of journalists covering the famine by Burundian peacekeepers, has shone further light on the lack of control within the ranks; indeed the AU force received strong criticism in the Human Rights Watch Report.
This leaves the international community with a horrendous dilemma when it comes to creating an environment in which aid can be effectively and safely delivered to the three quarters of a million Somali people at risk of imminent starvation. Supporting the TFG, the dominant focus so far, is likely to achieve little and could even be counter-productive if if its abusive authorities continue to hamper relief efforts and abuse human rights. Similarly, channelling funds into the AU force may well boost its numbers but, given its incompetence so far and the control exercised by pseudo-psychotic dictators such as Yoweri Museveni, may prove equally fruitless.
The Dutch government has taken something of a fresh approach, continuing support to the TFG and the AU whilst taking a tough line on their performance and concurrently strengthening local authorities and the governments of autonomous regions, which may hold more legitimacy and ultimately more chance of stabilising the areas under their control.
The USA has also continued unilateral drone attacks against Al-Shabab targets. Though these present numerous objections and are currently focussed on killing high-profile militants rather than enabling relief, they should not be wholly written off as the left is often so keen to do. Air attacks against militant groups that are actively disrupting aid efforts, or against their weapons dumps, should at least be discussed.
Whatever the solution, a change of tact is needed – and fast. Standing by and letting almost a million die of starvation is simply not an option, but aid by itself is not enough. The authorities, the militias and even the peacekeepers must all be addressed if the food, water and medicine is to reach those who need it….before they are beyond help.