Posts Tagged ‘NGOs’

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The famine in Somalia, from which 750,000 people could die by the end of the year, is not a natural disaster. It is the result of economic and social conflict.

More specifically, as Madeleine Bunting convincingly argues, it is a product of Somalia’s being a sideshow in the U.S. war on terror.

Somalia’s catastrophe is about how “humanitarian space” – the principles of neutrality crucial to effective intervention – has been destroyed by US policy in Somalia since 9/11. This is the key difference with the famine of the early 1990s, when the warring clans still recognised the neutrality of humanitarian aid rather than seeing it as a tool of western political strategy. Now the fringe extremist Islamist al-Shabaab militia, who control many parts of Somalia, will not allow access to most western aid agencies; the World Food Programme had to pull out in 2009, cutting off the food aid on which thousands were already dependent. The deaths of aid workers have forced most western aid agencies to withdraw from working in the country. The result is that there is no one who can engineer the massive logistical effort required to provide the food needed.

The hostility of al-Shabaab to western aid is in all the media reports on the famine. It plays easily into stereotypes of senseless and cruel violence in obscure African conflicts. But what is often omitted is any explanation of why al-Shabaab are so hostile to westerners – one honourable exception is the US journalist Jeremy Scahill, who uncovered CIA sites in Mogadishu. His reports trace how al-Shabaab’s suspicion is rooted in the experience of a decade of devious US manipulation. Somalia has been the war on terror’s sideshow – and I choose the word deliberately: think of Cambodia and its bombing by the US during the Vietnam war.

The United States created the conditions for the starvation in Somalia, just as its illegal bombing raids in Cambodia led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

But no aid appeal wants to complicate things with politics, and agencies such as Oxfam prefer to place the emphasis on the worst drought in 60 years rather than get into a tricky controversy criticising the US or UK government; Oxfam is receiving large amounts of UK aid for its operations in the Horn of Africa. Only Médecins Sans Frontières has openly criticised US policy for provoking al-Shabaab’s conviction that aid is a western political tool and that it has been used as such in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The challenge for American citizens is to change U.S. policy. The challenge for the humanitarian organizations is to develop a critical understanding of U.S. policy and to distance themselves from that policy in order to carry out their mission.