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Extremists, Corruption Pose Big Problems Getting Aid to Famine-Stricken Somalis

July 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Somalia is facing its worst famine in more than 50 years and the United Nations warned it could kill some 800,000 children. Ray Suarez speaks with Mercy Corps' Jeremy Konynkyk and the Atlantic Council's Peter Pham about the many domestic and international factors limiting the amount of aid reaching people in need.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has more on the growing humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.

RAY SUAREZ: And for that we turn to Jeremy Konyndyk, policy director for Mercy Corps, which has approximately 50 to 100 people doing relief and development work in Somalia. He was last there in the country in April. And Peter Pham is the director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Jeremy Konyndyk, the conditions that we just saw in Somalia don’t happen overnight. How long have the problems leading up to a U.N. declaration of famine been building up in Somalia?

JEREMY KONYNDYK, Mercy Corps: By the time it gets to the point of declaring famine, there’s been a whole process of degradation of the economy, of people’s ability to support themselves, of resources that has occurred and grown and grown to the point where basically the ability of many, many Somalis, of about 11 million people across the entire region — because we need to remember that Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya are also suffering similar conditions — it gets to the point where those 11 million people simply have no means what so ever to support themselves.

They have lost their — they have lost their crops. They have lost their livestock. They have lost any other means of income. And to a large degree, they have either — well, in the case of people in southern Somalia, no choice but to either find aid, which is scant in that part of the world, or to flee. Fortunately, in Ethiopia, Kenya and some other parts of Somalia, at least there is aid getting in.

RAY SUAREZ: When the early warning system, weather forecasts and other crop forecasts came out of the Horn of Africa, what did the international community do?

JEREMY KONYNDYK: I think the international community’s response was slow in this case.

The U.S. government has been ramping up drastically now, and was pre-positioning, but if you look at the amounts of money that are going in relative to the last significant crisis in the region, which was in 2008, what we have seen in this year in terms of donations both from the U.S. government and from the community — the international community at large, are well, well short.

We estimate that at this point the international community has given about $1 billion less to the drought in the Horn of Africa this year than it gave in 2008, the last major…

RAY SUAREZ: Peter Pham, Jeremy mentioned that there are similar crises right now in Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia. Is one of the key differences that those places have governments?

J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council: Yes.

Somalia has a transitional federal government, the 14th or 15th, depending on how you count them, such entity in 20 years. And it’s a government in name only. It controls virtually no territory, provides no services. And about the only thing its ministers are good at is stealing the aid that they get.

The last audit report showed that 96 percent of the aid they received had been stolen.

RAY SUAREZ: So, if you look at a map of the region, the problem is concentrated in two parts of the lower part of Ethiopia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle. Who is in charge there?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, in those areas, the Shabab, which is an umbrella group for an Islamist group that has some links with al-Qaida and other radical groups, but also includes clan militias, et cetera, they reign over the area. But you also have competing clan interests, but you don’t have a government, per se.

RAY SUAREZ: So how does an aid agency, Jeremy, figure out what to do? Al-Shabab has said that it won’t cooperate without with outside efforts to get food to the suffering. And, to be honest, outside governments are not that happy to have to do business with al-Shabab either.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: Well, this is one of the real challenges. I mean, international aid groups have really been caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to southern Somalia.

Almost all the other zones in the east African region that are affected by this, we can get to in some form. But there are two sources of blockages you have identified. One, of course, is the security problems that are posed and the refusal by the militants in Southern Somalia to allow international aid groups back in.

And the other is the policies of many Western governments, particularly the United States, who have really ramped down their aid to Somalia in the last few years because of the presence of Shabab. And we have seen a collapse of about 88 percent in U.S. funding to Somalia from 2008 to 2010, even as other donors around the world kept their funding at basically the same level.

So there is clearly an issue with the U.S. government seeing political issues or — and legal issues with providing aid to Somalia. And that’s been a significant concern as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Peter, what do you do in a case like that? No one wants to give aid if they know most of it isn’t going to reach the intended recipients. But you also don’t want to stand by while tens of thousands of people die either.

J. PETER PHAM: Well, I think what you have to do in the case of Somalia is step aside from this so-called government and get the aid to the people who need it, work with civil society within Somalia.

And there are civil society groups that international aid organizations have in the past partnered successfully with. Work with clan elders and get the aid to the people who need it, and let’s bypass this corrupt government and also bypass the Islamists and the extremists, and that way marginalize them as well.

RAY SUAREZ: But can you do that? Are there ports that — where you can actually safely unload ships? Are there roads where you can run trucks with cargo that won’t be waylaid, that won’t be hijacked?

J. PETER PHAM: No one is saying this is easy. But the port of Mogadishu is open. Other ports are open. Roads, if you know the terrain, work with local partners, they’re — the aid groups are very effective. And the local civil society groups and clan structures are there.

We just have to work with — get our head around the idea that we can’t always work with governments that look like us. We sometimes have to work with traditional authorities and other institutions that do function in settings like this.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeremy, one UNICEF worker on the ground called Somalia one of the most dangerous places, if not the most dangerous place, to do aid work in the world today. Is that right? And what makes it so?

JEREMY KONYNDYK: Well, I think we need to draw a distinction between the north and the south in this respect.

In the north, which is controlled by a variety of groups depending on where you are, including some fairly developed governance — governments in Puntland and Somaliland, it is not dangerous at all. I mean, there are security threats as you will find in any developing country, but it’s not particularly dangerous for aid workers. It’s really concentrated in the south that those challenges have existed.

And we, as aid workers, we know that our security depends on the acceptance of the communities that we work in. And Peter referred to sort of nontraditional approaches to aid work. And I think that’s what we — that’s our only chance in Southern Somalia at this point, is working very closely with existing local institutions which are still there which have a lot of capacity.

And, you know, the aid groups and the Somali people want to see aid get to whom it’s supposed to get to. They want to see it get to the needy. And so we need to work in a way that makes that — that makes that possible. The challenge now is for both of the — both of the obstacles to that, both the policy obstacles and the security obstacles, we need those removed in order to work.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeremy Konyndyk, Peter Pham, thank you both.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: Thank you.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.