Under the heat of the noon-day sun, hundreds of Somalis queue up in three orderly lines – men, women and children – and wait patiently for their scoops of corn porridge and soup.
For many, it is their only meal of the day, and they must divide it among a large family. Yet simple meals like this are keeping thousands of Somalis alive in the midst of the worst famine in decades.
The kitchen, however, is not organized by the United Nations, or by the familiar Western-based relief agencies or the central government. Instead it is run by a controversial Somali organization, Saacid, that has managed to maintain its neutrality in a city dominated by warlords, soldiers, insurgents and private armies.
For the past four years, through near-constant war and chaos, Saacid – pronounced say-eed, the Somali word meaning “to help” – has fed as many as 80,000 people a day at its 16 kitchens in the dangerous streets of Mogadishu. The group is viewed with suspicion by some Western critics, yet its innovative model could provide a glimmer of hope for Somalia’s future.
While much of the kitchen’s food stocks are donated by the UN and other agencies, those agencies are unable to operate in Mogadishu for security reasons. So they rely on organizations such as Saacid, which has delivered 74 million hot meals in Mogadishu since 2007. To ensure that its kitchens operate peacefully, Saacid remains fiercely independent of all sides, negotiating its own deals with political factions, clan elders, warlords and community leaders.
That independence has built respect. But it has also led to occasional conflict with international donors, distrust by some U.S. officials and sporadic allegations of corruption.
Saacid is the biggest indigenous non-governmental group in Somalia, with about 3,500 employees. It began as a women’s rights organization in 1990. But after war and anarchy erupted, it branched into new areas, including health, education, peace promotion and emergency relief.
Its most controversial figure is its director of operations, Tony Burns, a blunt-spoken Australian who was worked in Somalia for the past 14 years. He originally came to Somalia to work on a doctoral thesis on rebuilding the Somali state. Impressed by Saacid’s work, he joined the organization and never left.
While the United States and other Western powers have spent billions of dollars in a largely futile effort to build up the legitimacy of Somalia’s notoriously weak and corrupt government, Mr. Burns takes a radically different view. He says the West has a “fetish” with “big-man politics” – centralized government, which he calls the “winner-take-all” option – and this can never succeed in Somalia’s clan-dominated society.
In fact, he says, Somalis are weary of war and ready for peace, but they’re not prepared to cede power to a centralized government that is likely to be controlled by one or two clans. He quotes a Somali expression: “I now desire peace, but how can I give my dagger to my enemy?”
The focus on creating a centralized government has been a “deal-breaker” for most Somalis for the past 20 years, he says. “The lived experience of Somalis relating to governance is military dictatorship, in which one clan alliance has an opportunity to dominate the rest, and loot all available resources.”
Instead, Mr. Burns suggests building on the lessons of Saacid’s success: a bottom-up local approach, based on clans, grassroots leaders and the civil elite. “These groupings have existed throughout the past two decades, but have been overwhelmingly ignored,” he says.
Security, he says, could be provided by mixed clan units, operating only in their own districts, with Western training. Economic recovery would be based on loans to Somali businesses and vocational training. And government would be based on district elections, but not until after the security and economic reforms have been put into effect.
These ideas have sparked criticism from U.S. officials who are strong allies of Somalia’s central government. Others are skeptical of Saacid itself. In a 2010 report, a UN monitoring group accused it of links to corrupt Somali businessmen – an accusation that it withdrew a year later. Saacid’s relations with the UN are sometimes tense, and there has been friction over its complaints that the UN cut its food supplies this year.
Much of this is simply because the group is too independent, Mr. Burns says. “They consider us a spoiler. We’re large, we’re independent, we’re pro-Somali, and we don’t follow the UN standard line. We get loved or hated.”
Organizations such as Saacid are proving every day that they can run large-scale programs, he says. “We don’t need the UN or international groups. But we can’t get direct funding. Why are they giving the money to the UN, and not to indigenous organizations?”
In fact, there may be growing support for his ideas. Washington recently announced a new “dual track” policy for Somalia. Instead of solely supporting the central government, it said, the United States will consider supporting “groups and organizations in clan and sub-clan structures.” It was a key victory for Saacid’s approach.