Reports that thousands of sacks of stolen corn and grain are available on the black market in Somalia adds yet another layer of complexity to the challenge of delivering food aid to the starving.
The UN World Food Program, which is investigating allegations of theft in Mogadishu, has acknowledged that humanitarian supply lines remain vulnerable to looting in the war-ravaged country, and that there is no easy way to resolve this.
Somalia has no aid delivery infrastructure. The Islamist al-Shabab militia controls the south, the famine’s epicentre, but has banned western aid groups and continues to deny there even is a famine.
These difficulties, however, should not dissuade international donors from opening their wallets to help victims of the worst famine in a generation. Somalia’s children and families who are slowly starving to death should not be abandoned. Food aid cannot be suspended because some is being diverted. Instead, aid groups should focus on identifying those responsible, and taking action against them.
“If the theft of food aid involves the security forces or the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia, we need to ensure they are held liable. We have leverage over these people. Most are citizens of other countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Canada,” said Ken Menkhaus, a political scientist at Davidson College, North Carolina, and a leading scholar on Somalia.
Nearly half of Somalia’s population – 3.2 million people – need food aid urgently, according to the UN. Photos of emaciated children staring out blankly convey the agony of this drought. Already, 29,000 Somali children have died.
The country’s long-standing humanitarian crisis means some theft of food aid is simply unavoidable. Private militias, many linked to the government, compete to guard or steal food aid. Yet there is an understandable reluctance for UN peacekeeping troops to get into the business of protecting food aid, following the disastrous experience in Somalia in 1993, when the downing of two United States Black Hawk helicopters led to the collapse of the U.S. mission.
Western governments and individuals must instead rally to help the UN meet its urgent appeal for $2.4-billion in aid, support humanitarian groups to deliver food to secure parts of Somalia, and develop innovative initiatives that circumvent issues of safety, such as serving individual portions of porridge at designated centres.
The Somalia narrative is complex, protracted and laden with the baggage of the past. This makes it harder to mobilize global sympathy. But the world still has a responsibility to protect the children, women and men caught up, through no fault of their own, in the devastation and misery of war and famine.