In the last few months, the humanitarian situation in the entire Horn of Africa region has been steadily deteriorating owing to a drought caused by the climatic phenomenon La Niña. The situation is all the more worrying in Somalia where a decades-long conflict has driven some 250,000 Somalis out of their homes since May in the capital Mogadishu alone, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
It is the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years, threatening famine for 10 million people and compelling calls for increased humanitarian funding. And as if the humanitarian burden of conflict and drought was not enough, humanitarian actors have had restricted access to deliver aid to populations in territories held by the Somali armed group al-Shabab that controls the bulk of south-central Somalia.
But on July 6, 2011, according to the Associated Press, the group appealed for the return of humanitarian agencies to deliver aid to populations under its control.
Multiple reasons explain the lack of humanitarian access until now.
First, in 2009, more than $50 million of US humanitarian assistance for Somalia was suspended by the US government, then the main donor in Somalia, out of concern that it might benefit al-Shabab, designated as a terrorist organization. This designation created an additional burden for humanitarian agencies that risk prosecution under American law for interacting with al-Shabab elements, although such contacts are necessary to deliver aid as they are often the de facto local authorities.
Second, delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations under al-Shabab’s control is under close scrutiny by the United Nations Security Council since its resolution 1916 of March 2010, as the group represents a threat to peace and security and is suspected of diverting humanitarian aid to fuel its own war efforts.
Last but not least, the World Food Programme (WFP), by far the major emergency food provider in the country, has suspended its own operations since January 2010 reportedly due to escalating threats and attacks against its staff and unacceptable demands from armed groups. In turn, al-Shabab banned WFP’s operations in areas under its control and forced Somalis working for WFP to terminate their contract with the agency.
If the appeal of al-Shabab for the return of aid agencies in the areas it controls is genuine and lasts, it could constitute a unique opportunity to re-engage this armed group and allow the essential delivery of humanitarian—and notably food—assistance.
Indeed, this change of position might be a sign that the group is under mounting pressure from the population and feels compelled to address these concerns, not least because it needs this constituency to ensure its own survival.
Humanitarian agencies could take this chance to re-negotiate conditions for access and delivery of aid, using the group’s own interest as a lever to establish sound bases to avoid diversion of aid. This would allow for addressing the legitimate concerns of the international community while achieving the humanitarian imperative of delivering food to millions of people in need.