The unholy alliance in Somalia: Media, donors and aid agencies

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Images of suffering such as these are hits with aid agencies. Picture: File

Images of suffering such as these are hits with aid agencies. Picture: File 

By Rasna Warah

Posted  Sunday, August 7   2011 at  13:23

Even more alarmingly, there is almost no attempt on the part of news organisations to independently verify the facts and figures disseminated by aid agencies, which, as I discovered when I worked with a UN agency, are quite often inflated or based on erroneous data.

The temptation to exaggerate the extent of a crisis in order to raise more funding is always present, says Ahmed Jama, a Somali agricultural economist based in Nairobi. Jama believes that it is very likely that many parts of Somalia that have been declared as suffering from drought, such as the fertile lower Shabelle region — which experienced a bumper harvest last year — may actually be food secure, and that it is possible that the people suffering there are not locals but those who migrated to the region from drought-prone parts of the country.

He adds that it is in the interest of UN and other aid agencies to show a worst-case scenario because this keeps the donor funds flowing. Jama says that while parts of Somalia have always suffered from cyclical droughts, the lack of sound agricultural and livestock policies have ensured that droughts rapidly turn into famine, which was not always the case. In the 1980s, for instance, he says, Somalia met 85 per cent of its cereal needs, thanks to government and international community investments in agriculture.

Disasters such as the famine in Somalia fuel the aid business, with each aid agency eager to “brand” itself as the most competent in handling the disaster. In her recently published book The Crisis Caravan, Polman describes how crises become “business opportunities” for aid agencies.

Aid organisations that want to remain on top of the game, she adds, need to be fluent in the language of product positioning, proposal development and client relations. Physical presence in the disaster area is critical because “aid organisations that fail to put in an appearance at each new humanitarian disaster miss out on contracts for the implementation of aid projects financed by donor governments and institutions, and are bypassed left, right and centre by the competing organisations that do show up.”

The real story

Aid agencies rarely report the root causes of a famine, though in the case of Somalia, there is a tendency to blame the civil war and militia such as Al Shabaab, which until recently had banned aid agencies from entering areas under its control.

For more than two decades, civil war and famine have dominated the narrative about Somalia. But the Cape Town-based Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah believes that much of the commentary on the Somali civil war is based on “a false premise” — that the Somali civil war is the consequence of an age-old clan conflict. This view, he says, is unfortunately also held by a number of Somalis, who have no memory of the Somalia of his childhood, where the cosmopolitan capital Mogadishu “was not only one of the prettiest and most colourful cities in the world, but also decidedly the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa and older than many of Europe’s most treasured medieval cities.”

The real conflict in Somalia, he says, is not so much between clans but between urban and pastoralist communities, especially those which migrated to Mogadishu, and who visited havoc on the capital city in 1991 by forming contingents led by city-based men and “armed with ancient injustices newly recast as valid grievances.”

“The pastoralist Somalis, who are by nature urbanphobics,” he writes, “saw the city as alien and parasitic, and because it occupied an ambiguous space in their hearts and minds, they gradually accumulated hostility towards the city until they became intent on destroying it.”

However, some economists believe that the international community is largely to blame for the crisis in Somalia. Michel Chossudovsky, professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa, claimed in his 1993 book The Globalisation of Poverty and the New World Order, that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank had a negative impact on Somalia’s stability after they imposed structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s that forced Somalia to adopt austerity measures that destabilised the national economy and destroyed agriculture.

He blames the Bretton Woods institutions for, among other things, reinforcing Somalia’s dependency on imported grain, periodic devaluations of the currency that led to a hike in prices of fuel, fertiliser and farm inputs, and the privatisation of veterinary services. US grain supplies that entered the country in the form of food aid also destroyed local agriculture, he says. Food aid, in turn, was often sold by the government on the local market to cover domestic costs.

The diversion of food aid is nothing new. Ms Polman’s research shows that in almost every crisis area around the world, warlords, militia, and soldiers have benefited by imposing “taxes” on humanitarian agencies or stealing and selling food aid to buy arms. Quite often, refugee camps become safe havens for militia, who use the safety of the camps to regroup and recuperate. Refugee camps thus indirectly prolong civil wars.

Avenues for bribery

What is also not mentioned in the appeals for funding is the fact that a lot of the funds are used to pay off or bribe officials and militia to allow aid convoys to pass. (In Somalia, Ms Polman claims, the “entry fee” charged by warlords has in the past run to as much as 80 per cent of the value of the aid.) In many countries, it is not militia, but government officials, who steal aid money.

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