Delivering humanitarian aid in Somalia: a deadly dilemma

9 December 2013
Faced with the impossible choice of cooperating or leaving 100,000s to die, new research reveals the scale of compromises aid agencies were forced to make to operate in areas of Somalia under Al-Shabaab control during the 2011 famine.

The report from the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in collaboration with the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), shows international agencies faced increasingly sophisticated demands from Al-Shabaab, who monitored aid activities, coopted aid and demanded payments of up to $10,000 to allow access into areas of Somalia devastated by the famine.

Drawn from interviews with former Al-Shabaab officials, aid workers and civilians, this research reveals Al-Shabaab’s highly sophisticated system to monitor and coopt international aid agencies, including the establishment of a Humanitarian Coordination Office (HCO). Aid agencies were required to deal with the HCO, even though engagement with terrorist groups is considered a crime under a range of counter-terrorism laws.

“Aid agencies who failed to negotiate well faced taxation from Al-Shabaab, attacks on aid workers and even expulsion. Agencies faced a deadly dilemma, desperate to deliver life-saving aid but hemmed in by counter-terrorism legislation and demands from Al-Shabaab that compromised their humanitarian mandate,” said ODI Research Fellow and report co-author Ashley Jackson.

As current counterterrorism legislation criminalises interaction with terrorist groups, contact with the militant group was driven underground. In many cases, staff at regional headquarters turned a blind eye to activities, passing responsibility to local staff and placing them in extreme danger.

“For some agencies demands were too great, with well-known organisations forced to pull out of areas controlled by the group and some forcibly expelled. A devastating reality, as this was a crisis where an estimated 260,000 lost their lives and 750,000 people were at imminent risk of starvation,” said the Director of HIPS (Somalia’s first independent think tank) and report co-author Abdi Aynte.

“Strict counterterrorism legislation creates a culture of fear that drives negotiations with militant groups underground, prohibiting honest and open discussions among the aid community about how to best negotiate access in dangerous countries like Somalia,” added Mr Aynte.

This research highlights the international community’s eagerness to respond to humanitarian crises - over a billion dollars has been committed to humanitarian aid in Somalia - and the simultaneous obstacles put in place that prevent the delivery of this desperately needed aid.