America: Stop Trading Guns For Food in Somalia

It’s a long walk across the dry desert lands of the Sahel in Southern Somalia. It may be hope, but most likely just pure desperation, that drives Somali families out to Mogadishu, Dadaab in Kenya, and now even Yemen.

Somalia is in the midst of a terrible famine. People pour across borders in an image reminiscent of Moses’ exodus out of Egypt. Though droughts in this area are nothing new, rainfall has been dwindling in the past 60 years. What triggered this unprecedented human catastrophe forcing millions to begin a dangerous and often deadly trek across the desert in search of relief? A recent article in Time Magazine places much of the blame on the U.S and its allies for withholding foreign aid in their long and bitter struggle against the Islamist extremist group al-Shabab.

Foreign aid should not be used as a weapon for political gain.

In 2008, the U.S. State Department declared al-Shabab a terrorist organization, and while this declaration does not necessarily restrict aid organizations from work in al-Shabab-controlled territory, it certainly deters it. For much of the past three years, little to no aid circulated through southern Somalia while the most extreme drought in decades continued to ravage the country. In late 2009, the U.S. withheld nearly $50 million in aid from al-Shabab territory. By 2010, the U.S. was at odds with aid workers and prevented them from paying the tolls that al-Shabab demanded. It was then that Mark Bowden, UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, accused the U.S. of fighting its war on terror with aid. Bowden said that the crisis in Somalia had become an “issue of where assistance can be provided on political grounds.”

By early August, the UN feared the number of people at risk of hunger in the Horn of Africa was at 12.4 million. In Somalia, 63% of the population were either starving or near so, and 29,000 children had already died. To be fair, al-Shabab played its part in the crisis. In January of 2010, the organization expelled the World Food Program from its regions, claiming the program forced dependence and was a “puppet” of the U.S. Combine this with a complete lack of stability in Somalia’s government since 1991 and the result is a region with extremely limited assistance programs and no real pipeline in place through which to channel aid. In the face of the UN declaration of famine in Somalia on July 20, the U.S. has since tried to placate aid organizations, pledging to not prosecute workers if aid did end up in the hands of al-Shabab. But it may be too little, too late. If aid is meant to prevent or stem the tide of horrific crises or disasters, it should be given based upon humanitarian, rather than political need.

Restricting aid to achieve political goals may indeed work; since 2008, al-Shabab has been severely weakened by the famine, as well as from a loss in funding. On August 6, the terrorist organization even released its tenuous grip on Mogadishu, and withdrew further into the interior of the country. But, the question is whether the temporary withdrawal and weakening of a few thousand militants is worth the starvation of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Photo Credit: Oxfam East Africa