Somalia: What Happens When Political and Humanitarian Goals Collide?

The New York Times gets his hands on a UN memo that is sharply critical of the World Food Programs operations in Somalia.  The report, which will be presented to the Security Council next week, accuses the WFP aid of channeling its food aid through a host of seemingly nefarious actors:

“Some humanitarian resources, notably food aid, have been diverted to military uses,” the report said. “A handful of Somali contractors for aid agencies have formed a cartel and become important power brokers — some of whom channel their profits, or the aid itself, directly to armed opposition groups.”

There are two important points to make. The World Food Program see’s itself as stridently a-political.  Their goal is simply to deliver food to hungry people, regardless of their political affiliation.  Also — and this is crucial–if hungry people happen to live in areas controlled by bad guys, the WFP considers it their humanitarian duty to reach these people anyway.   In Somalia, this means that the WFP has figured out ways to deliver aid to much of al-Shabaab controlled territory in southern Somalia. (That is, until last month, when al Shabaab  kicked out the WFP). 

Second, the WFP’s a-politicalness puts them sharply at odds with other UN actors in Somalia. The UN, for example, has a political mission in Somalia, known as UNPOS, which has a mandate to support the very week Somali federal government.  One way to help strengthen the government is to channel aid through it. For the WFP, though, the main concern is to expediently deliver aid to needy populations.  This means that some WFP shipments sometimes go to ports that may be under the control of political forces opposed to the federal government, rather than the Port of Mogadishu which is nominally under government control.  You can see how this might create some friction between humanitarians and those focused on the political development of Somalia.

The provision of humanitarian aid in a place like Somalia raises complicated political and moral questions. On the one hand, the international community is heavily invested in creating a strong Somali federal government that is capable of providing for its people; after decades of intervention, the international community rightly considers this to be its only responsible and viable “exit strategy.” On the other hand, a strong and functioning Somali federal government seems to be a long way off.  In the meantime, is it morally justified to cut off aid to needy populations just because they happen to live in places controlled by forces opposed to the federal government? 

I don’t think there is an easy answer (or even a “right” answer) to this connundrum. For its part, the United States declared a few weeks ago that it was withdrawing its support for the WFP in Somalia because of the very concerns raised in this report.   Other donors and friends of Somalia may choose differently. 

The bottom line is any place where you have dual humanitarian and political goals (read: Afghanistan) you are going to run into these questions. It’s just important to remember that solutions are not exactly cut and dry. 

Image: Flickr user Peter Caiser/WFP