However, this month Shabaab admitted that it needs outside assistance. Rage himself announced that the expelled agencies could apply to return, and that "anyone with no hidden agenda will be assisted."
Even if these organizations return, it will take some time before they can operate in as effective a manner as they had. "The sad thing for these organizations is that if they come back, they can't just go back to the same position where they were," Peter Castro, a Syracuse University anthropology professor whose fieldwork has included social surveys of refugee camps in Somalia, told us. "They have to build up their logistics again. A lot of their staff went elsewhere because they were worried about being killed."
If these organizations return, they will also have to contend with restrictions imposed by Shabaab. Beginning in 2009, the group insisted that UN agencies and NGOs working in Somalia pay a $20,000 tax every six months. Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College, told us that Shabaab seeks to extract maximum gain from food aid that is delivered in areas it controls. "Somali contractors deliver the goods from the port of Mombasa, or wherever the food comes in, to the feeding center," he said. "The problem with that arrangement is that the contractors were being taxed, and in some cases were actively supporting Shabaab. One way or the other, Shabaab was benefiting."
Ambassador Shinn treated Shabaab's invitation to have NGOs apply for re-entry with some skepticism. "The devil is in the details," he said. "What will they require? They'll certainly insist that anyone who moves food does so with truckers who are part of Shabaab, or contribute to Shabaab's coffers. They'll want to make money on this."
Shabaab's propensity to extract economic gain from relief agencies also presents a challenge for U.S. policy. The U.S. has pledged $5 million to assist Somalis who have been struck by this drought. But, at the same time, U.S. policy is designed to prevent money from flowing to organizations like Shabaab, which has been named a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity by the U.S. Treasury Department. Humanitarian organizations that provide money to such groups can face legal repercussions, even if it's extracted from them unwillingly as a "tax."
These two competing desires -- to help the Somali people, and to prevent money from reaching militant groups -- sets up a real dilemma for American policymakers. "The U.S. has been a leader in saying we won't put up with money going to Shabaab," Ambassador Shinn said, "but it creates a drastic humanitarian issue. Do you cut off food aid to a region because it will be indirectly funding a terrorist organization? Some humanitarians say you just have to hold your nose and do it, others say no."
Some observers believe that the drought is a harbinger of further problems likely to wrack the region. Rod Charters of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has remarked that "the current crisis is not an unfortunate event but rather a chronic feature of the region." In his view, climate change has indelibly altered the Horn, and thus "the challenge ahead is to empower farmers and pastoralists to adapt to the new realities of high variability of weather patterns and more frequent extreme weather events." It may be premature to definitively say that what we're seeing is part of a climate change-induced alteration of the region's weather -- after all, drought has been cyclical and often quite severe in the Horn -- but if we are, then the international community needs to brace for more.