“They are not simple, innocent, kind victims, who are easy to help,” said Professor Richard Garfield of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “People in Somalia did not appreciate it when the U.S. was there the last time. There were even kidnappings of aid workers.”
Somalia is in a complicated region of the world. While some official estimates suggest conditions there are improving, other indicators are dire. Communiqué spoke with Columbia professors with expertise in humanitarian aid in Africa to learn about the background of Somalia’s worst drought in 60 years that has forced almost one million Somalis to flee their country.
In November, the United Nations reduced the number of official famine zones in Somalia from six to three. Professor Dirk Salomons, Director of the Program for Humanitarian Affairs at SIPA, is not enthusiastic about this. “The U.N. is quickly scaling down the scope of its warnings because it wants to make sure that the donors don’t feel that appeals have been made beyond what is really needed.”
Indeed, while there has been rain, and in some areas the grass has started to grow again, there are still 250,000 people at risk of imminent starvation. And food is hardly Somalia’s only problem. Al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group with close ties to al-Qaeda that is trying to take over parts of the country, poses a constant threat to humanitarian work. “It is still the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian aid workers,” said SIPA adjunct professor Gerald Martone, who is also Director of Humanitarian Affairs at the International Rescue Committee, a global non-profit that is aiming to restore livelihoods in Somalia.
In October, the Kenyan government sent hundreds of troops into Somalia to fight al-Shabab. In Martone’s opinion, this only made the security situation worse. Salomons concurs. “Most of our aid operations come from Nairobi, and the Somali Islamists now see everything that is coming out of Kenya as foreign intervention.”
To Salomons, military intervention is the worst possible solution to Somalia’s problems. “Al-Shabab is an extremely primitive fringe movement,” he said. “It should be much easier to isolate them from the rest of the population, by creating alternatives, moving them aside politically. Going against them militarily is fatal.” It was the U.S. and Ethiopian militaries, he added, that, throughout the last two decades, contributed to turning Somalia into one of the worst governed countries in the world.
Salomons instead proposes that the international community work through intermediaries, who can help determine what the militants want, how much popular support they have, and can work with them to regain some kind of accommodation. Salomons sees in this an important role for the Somali diaspora in the West. But the situation is made even more complicated by the fact that under the Patriot Act, al-Shabab is seen as a terrorist group, and anyone who provides them support is liable to legal action by the U.S. government. Martone therefore emphasizes that Islamic states and the African Union should play a greater diplomatic role.
Even after the current crisis passes, there will remain serious problems. Due to the lack of basic infrastructure, food insecurity may return. “The rains are fine, but they come in outbursts. Eighty-five percent of the water is never captured, it just disappears,” said Salomons. There is great need to improve Somalia’s ability to capture the huge amount of rainfall with underground cisterns, and to improve the food storage practices of the country’s farmers, because currently, as Salomons said, up to half of the stored food is eaten by rats.
Professor Garfield is optimistic that change will come in the long run. Even though it is one of the most difficult countries for which to raise funds, he points out that the international community managed to do a good job, partly because of the improved monitoring technology. “The world, even in this recession, gave a lot of attention and money.”
Garfield also emphasizes that the number of countries with similar conditions is constantly declining. Neighboring Ethiopia, for example, where hundreds of thousands died of hunger in the 1980s, did not have serious food insecurity in the last few decades. “We as a world are making progress. There are not many places left like Somalia anymore. There have been a lot, but not anymore.”
Krisztian Simon is a first-year Master of International Affairs student.