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Issue 497/ 06th - 12th August 2011
Will Aid Ever Get To Those Who Need It In Somalia?
Britain has already donated an extraordinary £42 million, but bringing help to the famine-hit Horn of Africa is a logistical nightmare in a corrupt and lawless region.
By Tim Butcher
Shipping containers arriving in Singapore take about eight minutes to clear customs. To arrange the same clearance in the Kenyan port of Mombasa takes at least three days, often a fortnight.
Such logistical minutiae might seem trivial set against images of emaciated Somali children, 30,000 of whom have already lost their fight for survival. But they become terrifyingly relevant as policy makers consider how to respond to the gathering humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa.
The British public has responded to such clear human suffering as it always does, with magnificent generosity: £42 million at the last count. To put that into perspective, the government of South Africa, the strongest economy on the African continent, has so far pledged the equivalent of £100,000, while the African Union has postponed for more than two weeks a conference to raise funds for the famine victims.
But while our human response to the catastrophe is starkly clear, it is crucial that aid-expert coordinators and donors alike understand the unclear realities of aid provision in this region, realities defined by lack of capacity and the creeping undertow of corruption.
Seldom can there have ever been worse conditions in which to arrange aid deliveries. Not only is the epicentre of the crisis – central and south Somalia – a remote, dirt-poor dust bowl with terrible roads and scant infrastructure, but aid workers there have for years been shot on sight by gunmen.
Three years ago al-Shabaab, a loose association of armed groups in Somalia that coalesced around fundamentalist Islam, pronounced aid workers “infidels”. More than 20 were killed in 2008 alone.
The group speaks with many voices and, though a few of them have recently renounced attacks on humanitarian workers, there are few aid groups currently willing to put their word to the test. It means that aid trickles in by being flown to Mogadishu, the least cost-effective delivery system, and a perilous operation in a live-firing range of a city that has been fought over almost incessantly since 1991. The airport is surrounded on all sides by “hostiles”, mostly al-Shabaab. Or it is delivered to the dry wastelands of northern Kenya for refugees strong enough to survive a trek across the Somali border.
Three Ugandan soldiers from an African Union peacekeeping mission deployed to keep the airport in safe hands were this week killed in combat.
Their corpses fell into the hands of al-Shabaab, who dragged them through the streets, not far from where dead US soldiers received similar treatment in the Black Hawk Down incident of 1993. Hollywood is unlikely to make a film about these poor Ugandans.
Somalia is arguably the world’s most failed state, split into three largish entities, Somaliland, Puntland and rump Somalia, where the current humanitarian crisis is playing out. While Somaliland is relatively stable, the other two parts are riven by clan rivalry, lawlessness and blood feud. It is from Puntland that pirates now terrorize much of the north Indian Ocean.
Planeloads of aid might make good TV pictures but they represent terrible value for money. The hard yards of large-scale aid delivery must be made the old-fashioned way, using ships and trucks, and this is where focus shifts to Mombasa’s terrible customs clearance rate, as highlighted in a recent book, Why Africa is Poor, by a South African academic, Greg Mills.
“The once-infamous customs 'long room’, known only for its static and obdurate bureaucracy, was computerised, significantly reducing customs clearance times,” he writes. “But there were still myriad human interventions around verification.”
Geography means Mombasa is the largest and closest functioning port to the current crisis so, in theory, it should be a launch pad for what promises to be one of the most high-profile aid efforts since Live Aid. But it has all the makings of a bottleneck.
Once the jewel in the crown of British colonialism in Africa, Kenya has declined steadily since the idealism peddled by its post-independence leader Jomo Kenyatta. Corruption by politicians has seeped into all levels of society, from the police service to primary schools, crippling the productiveness of a country so defined by dreams of efficient transport that its capital, Nairobi, grew out of a “temporary” depot on the British built-railway linking Mombasa with Uganda.
A business colleague recently had reason to bring in large amounts of US dollars to Nairobi. He followed all the bank transfer procedures and paid the relevant fees, only to be summoned by a police chief. In not so many words, my friend was told: “If you are bringing in that sort of money then I deserve my percentage.” He moved his business elsewhere.
The railway that seeded Nairobi still wears well the “Lunatic Line” nickname bestowed when it was built in 1900. It is now so inefficient and poorly maintained that aid logisticians avoid it, opting for trucks instead.
But even here the corroding impact of corruption is clear, with bankrupt local authorities allowing potholed roads to go untended, bridges unreinforced and culverts uncleared on the long north road towards the Kenyan/Somali border. If the aid ever gets there, capacity shortfalls (a euphemism for incompetence born of corruption) stymie efficient aid provision in the dry, dusty north of Kenya.
With finite resources, the Kenyan authorities face the Sophie’s choice of deciding whether to help their own citizens suffering from the drought that has struck the whole region, not just Somalia, or new arrivals from over the border. It is perhaps not surprising that the impression is being given that Somalis are not treated fairly.
Kenya has legitimate security concerns – al-Qaeda’s first official operation was the 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and neighboring Tanzania – and its intelligence personnel need to check Somali arrivals against databases of known threats. But the current, paper-based system requires statements and other material being gathered in the far north and driven to and from Nairobi for verification.
Mobile phone coverage is well advanced in Kenya, as is the sophistication of local commerce based on instant messaging, but the vetting procedure is stuck in the 1950s. This leads to legitimate cases having to wait up to 10 weeks before being recognised as refugees and provided with full humanitarian support.
If you are brave enough to attempt aid deliveries into southern Somalia itself, then the corruption soars to a higher level altogether.
The World Food Programme, the Walmart of aid provision that deals with bulk volumes of food that dwarf more bespoke groups such as Oxfam, was earlier this year accused by United Nations investigators of falling into the trap of relying on some very dodgy Somali transport companies.
It was alleged that £100 million worth of WFP contracts (in other words, 1,000 times more than South Africa is currently committed to donate) were given to three Somali individuals who did not just steal the goods – they sold at least part to al-Shabaab, who in turn made a profit. The WFP issued denials, pointing out the three men only received £10 million in contracts, but they were dropped from future work.
The Black Hawk Down mission, now almost 20 years old, was also a humanitarian project. The US was backstopping the UN as it sought to deliver aid through Mogadishu to innocent Somali civilians also suffering in a drought that had ravaged food supplies.
Many outsiders remember the brutality of the fighting, in particular the savage abuse of the American corpses. But if you ask veterans of that aid effort, many will tell you the most troubling brutality came from rival Somali warlords, as they callously blocked food aid for factional reasons, allowing the young, infirm and elderly to die from starvation.
Echoes of this are currently playing out in Ethiopia, where a BBC investigation found that communities hit by famine are being denied basic food, seed and fertiliser for failing to support Meles Zenawi, the country’s leader. Diplomatic warnings of this abuse of British aid have, apparently, been ignored.
David Cameron places great stock on common human decency. It is the keystone of his Big Society policy. And he has applied the same faith to foreign aid, increasing the Department for International Development’s budget while slashing those to other departments. In the face of shrill headlines, and criticisms from within his party, Cameron continues to ramp up DfID’s share of GDP to 0.7 per cent (last measured at 0.56 per cent).
It was a brave political choice and one based on faith in human nature. In Somalia that faith faces its sternest test.
Chasing the Devil by Tim Butcher (Vintage, RRP £8.99) is available from Telegraph Books for £8.99 plus 99p p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk
Source: The Telegraph