Somalis have not stopped looting food aid since the imports began after the 1975 drought, and yet Western development agencies have not slowed the pace of shipments in more than twenty years. In that time span, countless articles have been written about the theft of food aid–most with the same general storyline: Somali warlords, armed through various nefarious acts, steal shipments of food aid destined for Somalia’s most needy, who will starve if they do not get their rations. Humanitarian agencies, who just want to see that the food reaches the hungry, are caught in the crossfire of vicious Somali clan politics that dominate the lawless society.
But despite widespread knowledge that less than half of food aid imported to Somalia is delivered to those who need it most, Western relief agencies kept pouring in the food. This common account of how food aid ends up in the market is misleading because it places the blame almost entirely on Somalis, despite the minimal control they have over the operational capacity of major international NGOs.
A New York Times article from 1992 illustrates American relief effort thinking:
To try to keep food prices down, Andrew Natsios, the coordinator of the stepped up American relief effort to Somalia, said Washington would start selling relief food at very low prices to Somali merchants in Kenya and Djibouti, who would then sell it at controlled and monitored prices inside the country. He said it was hoped that cheaper prices would force the merchants inside the country to bring their prices down. “We want to flood the country with food,” Mr. Natsios said.
Natsios, the head of USAID food assistance at the time, could not have been unaware of USAID’s history in Somalia. USAID had been “flooding the country with food” for over ten years, and in that time Somalia had descended into civil war, while the number of people “at risk of starvation” had only increased. Poorly monitored food aid had empowered Somali businessmen and rebel groups, fomenting clan conflict at the expense of the national economy. “Flooding the country with food” undermined any local agricultural production, leaving Somalis with a diminished domestic food production capacity and a severe dependence on cheap, imported food. USAID, which had become the most powerful actor in Somalia, was treating food aid like a commodity and hoping the problem of hunger would solve itself if enough food was sent in, rather than promoting domestic agricultural production. Instead of looking at food aid’s role in perpetuating the ongoing conflicts, USAID looked at the conflicts as an impetus for increased relief assistance. The American response to the grave problems created by unchecked food aid has been, simply put, more food aid.
A 2009 UN investigation noted that “thousands of sacks of food aid were being diverted from starving refugees and openly sold for profit” and savvy businessmen were “inventing” refugee camps to bring relief funding while “the food could hardly be more needed” for the 3.5 million Somalis who rely on the UN’s World Food Programme for meals._ That Western media outlets are still writing about the need to protect Somali food aid from theft today highlights the inherent problem with the relief effort in Somalia. Instead of improving after twenty years of Western food aid, Somalia’s food problem is only getting worse. From 400,000 refugees at risk after the Ogaden War, there are now 3.5 million, roughly half Somalia’s population.
USAID’s failure to achieve anything more than a “more money/more food aid,” short term solution, comes to light when we look again at its “Refugee self-reliance program” final report of 1985: “An implicit assumption untested in this design is that the refugees want to farm or engage in business even if it means losing their rations. In none of the sub-projects have the refugees given up any rations due to their involvement in the Project. Therefore, it is, strictly speaking, impossible to say that they would engage in the activities or sub-projects if it meant losing their rations. At the time of implementation it was impractical to reduce the rations or stop them.” (Report 2 p 13). Despite the program’s stated objective of reducing refugee dependency on aid programs, no effort was made to cut daily food ration consumption. Refugees remained reliant on food aid throughout the course of the five-year program, fundamentally undercutting their agency to provide for themselves. Although this report is from 1985, USAID’s strategy in Somalia has hardly changed from the incredibly simplistic analysis that might as well be its ethos—people are starving, so we’ll send them food.
Food aid so clearly destroyed the economy that today even al-Shabab, the Islamist rebel group who have been called more vicious and extreme than the Taliban, has recognized its caustic powers. The Islamic Courts Union splinter group wrote in a statement released in November 2009 to the World Food Programme that “the bringing of immense quantities of free food rations, and specifically during the harvest season, has been devastating to the agriculture industry in Somalia. It has been decided that the WFP must immediately refrain from bringing food rations from outside of Somalia and rather purchase food from Somali farmers, and then that food will be distributed to the needy in Somalia.”_ This statement reveals the pragmatism of “terrorist” group Al-Shabab, who recognizes that the key to building a successful state relies on a strong, self-sufficient agricultural sector. By promoting domestic agricultural production, al-Shabab is pitching its nation-building capacities against the futile Western-backed government to a people desperate for stability.
Today, Al-Shabab is mocked and criticized for prohibiting the distribution of Western food aid in areas it controls. But it would appear that all parties, except the USAID and the UN, have recognized that excessive food aid, a gesture that harms more than helps despite its humanitarian façade, is detrimental to Somalia’s reconstruction. The West’s crocodile tears for Somalia, a country it has helped destroy, should be revealed for what they are. If the West wants to make a long-term positive impact in the region it should abandon the corrupt, failed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and work with the government of Somaliland, an autonomous territory that has flourished without the help of Western aid.
1 Lewis, Ioan. Understanding Somalia and Somaliland. P 67_2 Cowell, Allan. “Somalia, Enfeebled by Hunger, Still Export Food”. The New York Times 25 Sep 1981._3 Maren p. 97._4 Wren, Christopher. “Million Ogaden Refugees Clinging to Life in Somalia “. The New York Times 24 May 1980._5 Maren p. 94._6 Lewis p. 67._7 African Rights and Mines Advisory Group, ‘Violent deeds live on: landmines in Somalia and Somaliland’, December 1993; and J Maxted & A Zegeye, ‘State disintegration and human rights in Africa’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 38(1/2), 1997, pp 64-86._8 Ibid 110_9 Perlez, Jane. Theft of Food Aid is a Business in Starving Somalia in NY Times 4 Sep 1992_10 Rugman, Jonathan. “UN food stolen from the starving in Somalia fake camp fraud”. The Times London 15 June 2009._11 BBC. “Somali rebels order UN to stop food imports”. BBC News 25 November 2009.