How do you solve a problem like Somalia?

If international leaders are to help Somalia, they first need to acknowledge their role in its tragedy, say Mark Bradbury and Laura Hammond.

Forty heads of state convene in London this week for a conference on Africa’s biggest headache: Somalia. For Britain and the other countries represented at the conference, Somalia is a security problem, a ‘failed state’, a haven for terrorists and pirates, a threat to the well-being of the Global North. But the main threat that misgovernment in Somalia represents is to Somalis themselves, constantly at risk of famine and displacement.

Although Britain responded generously to the famine that ravaged Somalia last year, there was no mention of the humanitarian crisis when the Prime Minister announced the conference, which is focused purely on the political question of the country as a ‘failed state’. (Discussion of the humanitarian crisis affecting Somalis is relegated to an oddly-named ‘humanitarian breakfast’.)

But if Somalia is a failed state, the failure is not just a Somali failure. It is a failure also of those who have been intervening in Somalia for the past two decades. It is unlikely that the big players attending the conference will acknowledge the role that their own policies have played in creating the conditions that led to a famine in 2011 which cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives.

Somalis collect drinking water

Photo: DFID under a CC Licence

The return of famine was the result not only of a lack of internal governance, and of the conflict between the so-called Transitional National Government (TFG) and the Islamist al-Shabaab. It was a failure of global governance. Since the Somali state collapsed in 1991, international policy in Somalia has revolved around, on the one hand, the provision of humanitarian assistance to meet recurrent humanitarian need and, on the other, the establishment of a government that could restore internal order and address international security concerns.  

But these objectives have often been in opposition. After years of neglect in the 1990s, international interest in Somalia was revived after 9/11, when it became seen as a source of transnational terrorism. The restoration of a Somali government became part of a counterterrorism strategy, rather than a way to deal with the root causes of state collapse and conflict. In defending the TFG and the peace agreement that created it, the UN and donor governments themselves became belligerents in a war that created the most severe humanitarian crisis in recent Somali history

One tragedy of the past two decades has been the manipulation by the international donor community of famine relief and other humanitarian aid to meet political goals in Somalia. Aid has been used as a carrot to reward areas of the country that have established peace and kept violent extremists at bay. However, it is also used to punish people living in areas under the rule of al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab did not help by expelling the World Food Programme and several non-governmental organizations receiving US assistance from the areas of southern and central Somali under its control. But the US and many European countries had already turned their back on many of these areas. Legal restrictions prevented direct access negotiations with al-Shabaab, which was proscribed as a terrorist organization in 2008, and aid agencies were banned from providing assistance in areas where supplies or money might end up in the hands of al-Shabaab operatives. This effectively created a vacuum where both sides neglected the people of southern Somalia.

It was only when the situation had spiralled out of control that the US and European countries informally relaxed their restrictions on dealing with al-Shabaab. However, the legislation remains binding and can be enforced at any time. The expulsion by al-Shabaab last month of the Red Cross from areas it controls and its defiant public announcement this week that it is renewing its ties with al-Qaeda could see restrictions re-established.

Ongoing danger

Earlier this month the UN announced that the famine was at an end, but the danger is not over. Conditions for 2.4 million people remain critical. Donors may now become complacent and stop providing life-saving support. And humanitarian assistance may once again become a tool to be used to bring about the donors’ vision of what a stable Somali government may look like.

An internationally backed expansion of military operations by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), Kenya and Ethiopia in south central Somalia is placing civilians in danger and affecting humanitarian access. Since December, thousands have fled their homes to escape fighting and air strikes. The expansion of military operations is compounding the problems caused by the expulsion of humanitarian agencies in 2011. While the behaviour of AMISOM forces towards the people of the areas it controls has improved in recent months, the shelling of populated urban areas continues and displaced camps have been subject to attacks by warring factions.

When the international community gathers in London this week to develop a new approach to working with Somalia, they must make a clear statement that humanitarian relief is not to be used to bring about political change. They must commit themselves to respecting humanitarian organizations’ impartiality, neutrality and independence. This may mean engaging in dialogue with local leaders in al-Shabaab controlled areas, where such counterparts are willing to work to assist the people under their control.

Failure to respect humanitarian principles and engage in dialogue with those from across the political spectrum will prevent both political and humanitarian objectives from being met. A political state for Somalia cannot be built using life-saving aid as a reward for good behaviour, nor can a famine be stopped by only working with one’s allies.

In view of the expansion of regional military forces in Somalia and the conflagration of the conflict, it is also essential that participants in the London conference prioritize the protection of civilians and clearly state that all parties in the conflict will be held accountable under international human rights and humanitarian law. In the absence of a government with the capability to provide such protection, Somalis deserve nothing less from the international community.

Mark Bradbury is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute (RVI); Laura Hammond is a Lecturer on the RVI Horn of Africa Course and Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

How foreign policy blunders helped create the famine in Somalia


Famine has returned to Somalia, and so has the US military. This is no natural disaster. Just as the US sent its first drones to Somalia, targeting leaders of the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab, tens of thousands of Somalis were crossing into Kenya, fleeing a catastrophic drought and conflict.

While US drones were able to find their targets in Somalia with pinpoint accuracy, humanitarian agencies have had less luck. They have experienced a catastrophic decline in access that has destroyed their ability to assist and protect civilians. The families crossing into Kenya are escaping from a severe drought but they are also fleeing a war.

This is a conflict between the internationally sponsored Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and a militant Islamic movement al-Shabaab, which is listed as a terrorist organization. The political use of aid by the warring parties has eroded the humanitarian space that agencies need to operate safely and securely.


Photo by Expert Infantry under a CC licence.

Back in the 1990s, the international community mounted an unprecedented armed humanitarian intervention in the face of a famine that followed the collapse of the Somali state. Today it is different. For the past two years only a handful of foreign aid agencies have been able to work in the country because Somalia has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers.

International strategic interest in Somalia waned with the humbling of US forces when US Blackhawk helicopters were shot down in Mogadishu. This was compounded by  the failure of the UN mission to end the conflict and restore a functioning state.

The 9/11 attacks on America revived international interest. Somalia was now viewed through a new prism, as a failed state and a potential haven for al-Qaeda. In addition, the presence of Islamic jihadist groups catapulted Somalia into the global war on terror. Suddenly the restoration of a central government was a key strategy.

But the authority of the internationally backed Transitional Federal Government was challenged in 2006 when a confederation of Islamic courts took control of Mogadishu and much of south central Somalia.  Within six months, Ethiopia had intervened militarily, backed by US airstrikes. The courts were ousted from Mogadishu and the transitional government installed with an African Union peacekeeping force (AMISOM) deployed to protect it. 

Since then there has been an inexorable rise in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia. The policy to restore internal order to Somalia has had the opposite effect. The Ethiopian occupation fuelled support for the increasingly militant al-Shabaab that emerged from the ruins of the Islamic courts. The fighting in Mogadishu has killed over 18,000 civilians, displaced up to 1 million people, and caused tens of thousands to flee the country.

The ability of international agencies to respond to the humanitarian catastrophe has declined in inverse proportion to needs. Their neutrality was compromised by international support for the TFG that included the provision of weapons and training of its security forces, the assassination of al-Shabaab leadership and overt attempts to deploy aid in support of the TFG.

Violence against aid workers increased. Al-Shabaab accused aid agencies of being western spies. Some were expelled while others found their work restricted through taxation and other demands. Other aid agencies have fallen foul of US domestic antiterrorism legislation that places strict conditionalities on assistance.

The World Food Programme suspended its operations in Somalia in December 2009 when the UN estimated 3.2 million people were in need of food aid.  Their largest donor, the US government, had suspended funding out of concern that the aid was benefiting al-Shabaab; they faced unacceptable attacks and demands on their staff and expulsion by al-Shabaab. Good harvests in 2010 off-set the immediate impact of the loss of food aid. But by early 2011, following another failure of rains, the UN monitoring systems were reporting alarming levels of malnutrition and increasing numbers of families from Somalia seeking refuge in Kenya.

The famine declared in Somalia by the UN on 20 July 2011 is not simply a consequence of drought, but the result of war, international policy and climatic conditions.

The international community became a belligerent in the war and gave primacy to  security interests over human need and protection. By using aid to further their political and security agendas, foreign donors lost sight of the principles that guide humanitarian assistance.They have yet to face up to the harm they have been doing in Somalia.

Mark Bradbury is Director of the Rift Valley Institute Horn of Africa Course.

This blog draws on the Briefing Paper 'Statebuilding, Counterterrorism and Licensing Humanitarianism in Somalia' by Mark Bradbury, published by the Feinstein International Centre, September 2010.

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