Somalia's Drought, America's Dilemma

How can the U.S. provide much-needed aid to a part of the world that is controlled by a terrorist group allied with al Qaeda?

How can the U.S. provide much-needed aid to a part of the world that is controlled by a terrorist group allied with al Qaeda?

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An internally displaced Somali woman holds her child inside their makeshift shelter in southern Mogadishu / Reuters

The Horn of Africa is currently wracked by what seems to be its worst drought in 60 years, with tremendous humanitarian consequences. As the director of a humanitarian NGO that works in the region put it, the Horn faces "the perfect storm," as inadequate rainfall, the global rise in food prices, a surging population, and declining natural resources have placed around 10 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Compounding the problem, and creating a dilemma for the United States, some of the hardest-hit areas are controlled by an al Qaeda-aligned organization that regularly extorts humanitarian organizations -- and will likely do so again.

The countries at the epicenter of this drought are Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Uganda. Kenya holds the greatest population of food-insecure people, at 3.5 million. At least 2.85 million face food insecurity in Somalia, according to the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks, while 3.2 million Ethiopians require humanitarian assistance. Further, 600,000 are at risk in Uganda and 120,000 in Djibouti.

Many residents of the Horn have been displaced by these extreme conditions, with a particular exodus from Somalia. Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that 5,000 people are leaving Somalia for Ethiopia every week, joining the approximately 110,000 refugees who are already there. A full 23 percent of Somali refugees arriving in Ethiopia suffer from severe acute malnutrition; humanitarian workers normally consider a 4 percent incidence of this kind of malnutrition to be an emergency. Officials with the UN's refugee agency have said that many of the children who take the journey arrive so exhausted and frail that aid workers are unable to revive them. Agency spokeswoman Melissa Flemming tried to describe the magnitude of these deaths to the Associated Press: "It's so extreme. Our people are saying they've never seen anything like it."

Other Somalis have fled to Kenya. One displaced youth, 16-year-old Hassain, told Al Jazeera from Kenya's Dadaab refugee complex, which holds about 380,000 people, "There had been no rain in my village for two years." According to Al Jazeera, Hassain hoped that he and his two-year-old sister could start a new life "away from the parched fields, dead cattle and social violence ruining communities in his native Somalia."

The southern parts of Somalia are the drought crisis's "ground zero," as David Shinn, the U.S.'s former ambassador to Ethiopia, put it in an interview with us. This creates a perplexing dynamic, since the dominant force in the drought-stricken areas of Somalia is al Shabaab, the extremist, al Qaeda-linked militia that many U.S. policymakers see as the region's most significant strategic challenge. This drought thus presents challenges for Shabaab itself, but also for the United States.

Part of Shabaab's legitimacy rests on its claim that it is a better regional administrator than Somalia's weak transitional federal government (TFG). The flood of refugees into neighboring countries from the areas it controls has been a major embarrassment. Shabaab has thus backtracked on its previous expulsions of a number of humanitarian NGOs.

In February 2010, for example, Shabaab expelled the World Food Programme. Somali farmers had complained that the free food aid was driving market prices down so far that subsistence farmers could no longer support their families. Shabaab banned three more aid groups in August 2010 and another three in September, accusing them of "promulgating Christianity and Western ideology." (Some of these banned agencies continued to work in areas of Somalia that Shabaab did not control.)

Even in January 2011, as worsening conditions dislocated more and more Somalis were, Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage boasted of these policies to the local press. He described the banned organizations as "the enemies of the Somali people" and claimed that they were "disguising themselves under the name humanitarian agencies" while "clandestinely victimizing the Somali people." Rage claimed Shabaab was "helping the needy Somali people in ten regions which are under our authority, so this clearly shows that without the ... so-called humanitarian agencies we can help our people."

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.