Food and fuel sent to help starving children has been hijacked by warlords and prolonged conflicts
February 22, 2017
Five million in South Sudan, six in Somalia – half the population in the Yemen, 14 million, facing starvation in the future.
Nearly a million and a half of them are children.
Predictably, the United Nations and other aid organizations are rushing out the appeals for aid.
Soon there will be pictures on our television screens that will be hard to resist.
Children passing into oblivion in front of their emaciated parents, their hair turned orange and falling from their skulls.
But emergency aid sent into South Sudan, which like Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia, is torn by conflict, risks making the whole horror even worse.
The need to do the right thing must be tempered by understanding what that right thing is.
In 1993, I sat in a ring of aid workers from the Irish agency GOAL, trying to rub life back into the dying limbs of a boy called Ali in Baidoa, in central Somalia.
He was about three and breathed his last rasping breath about two minutes before the arrival of President George H.W. Bush.
That president has a pretty good understanding of emergency aid.
He sent tens of thousands of troops and cajoled other UN members into invading Somalia to put an end to the systematic starvation of Somalis by Somali warlords.
He came to Baidoa to see how the invasion had put the warlords out of business. It did eventually but had not by the time Ali died.
In Baidoa, the International Committee of the Red Cross was charged $15,000 to land 16 tons of food in the town each day by warlords like Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
And another $15,000 to store it.
At the height of the famine, I rode on the ‘death bus’ to report on its daily collection of the dead from the streets of the town – with temperatures usually in the high 90s.
Aid was fuelling deliberate mass starvation.
In the 1990s, southern Sudan was fighting a secessionist war against the north.
A full 80% of the aid – mostly food and fuel – sent to help the thousands who faced starvation there as a result of the conflict was stolen. And so the conflict was prolonged.
Now, whether it’s in Nigeria’s north, South Sudan, Somalia or Yemen, aid agencies know they will face a conundrum.
Do they agree to the terms of delivery set by groups and risk being part of the problem they are trying to solve?
Will South Sudan’s government, which has been accused of prosecuting a genocide against the Nuer tribe in Unity State, be trusted to help with delivering aid to that same location – and should it?
And, for that matter, would the Nuer leadership under Riek Machar resist the temptation to take some, or most, aid to fund and fuel its conflict with the central government?
In Somalia, many, perhaps most of the most vulnerable Somalis are trapped in areas dominated, if not outright controlled, by al Shabab – the terrorist organisation that has been the scourge of the Horn of Africa.
It will be impossible to help people in these areas without doing deals with the Shabab – that means donor money ending up in the pockets of a terrorist movement that has blown up hotels, embassies and attacked shopping malls across East Africa.
The truth is that if you want to end famine in these areas, end the conflict.
And you do that by diplomacy backed with the force of arms.
Not food and fuel.