By JOE PENNEY
Turn on CNN, BBC or any other major Western media outlet and, aside from news about the Norway killer (not labeled as a terrorist because he’s not Muslim), the UK phone hacking scandal and the U.S. debt crisis, few international stories make the headlines. From Africa, a continent of 53 countries, there was one major story in recent weeks: drought in the Horn of Africa, which has led to a “famine” in Somalia (I put the word famine in quotation marks because it is a contentious classification that the UN has used to define the situation in Somalia).
Starving black babies with bloated bellies and crying mothers: these images, along with that of a white man talking into the camera while walking around a refugee camp, have been a near-constant feature flashing on television screens. We are bombarded with information on human suffering of heart-wrenching proportions (the current number is 11 million at risk of starvation), but all explanations of why more than a million people are at risk of dying point to one cursory tale, that of a recent drought that has devastated agricultural production in East Africa.
While the current drought and resulting food crisis in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and northern Kenya) is indeed frightening, deserving of attention in Western media and a real humanitarian crisis, it is important to consider the history of Western “humanitarian” intervention in the country, which has not had a functional government since civil war topped the US-backed dictator Siad Barre in 1991. At a time when food agencies sponsored by the World Food Programme and USAID are calling for emergency relief supplies, it is opportune to take a look into Somalia’s past engagement with food aid to draw more than a few worthy lessons.
The US has an interest in getting rid of surplus food generated from subsidizing and purchasing grain at above-market prices from American farmers, and one of the ways it did so was to donate food to Somalia. The food was supposed to save millions of Somali refugees at risk of death from famine and warfare, but instead it almost single-handedly destroyed the Somali economy. Seeking income in a declining economy, Somalis fought to control remaining sources of revenue for their clans, and food aid had become the nation’s most valuable resource.
USAID began sending food aid to Somalia after Cuban and Ethiopian forces combined to push the Somali army out of the land in the Ogaden captured by the Somalis in 1979, although a number of aid agencies had been present in Somalia since a devastating 1975 drought. Ethnic Somalis who fled the fighting in Ethiopian territory became refugees in Somalia, and needed care as such. But politics played a role in determining who and how many refugees there were, with foreign journalists as well as American, Somali and UN officials producing different estimates based on their respective political agendas. Somalia expert Ioan Lewis noted that although the magnitude of the refugee problem was not originally recognized, estimates became part of a political terrain: “The actual number of refugees (which directly affected the aid budget) was highly controversial, the Somali authorities resisting all UNHCR attempts to enumerate them but settling for a “planning figure of 700,000” in the years directly following the war._
Food aid diversion
Since the early 1980s, food aid, defined by USAID as “edible commodities donated to needy populations,” became the most traded commodity in the country as little oversight created favorable conditions for widespread theft of foodstuffs and their sale in the black market. Irrigation and farm-training projects funded by USAID destroyed the Somali nomadic way of life and their traditional coping strategies for drought, leaving them more vulnerable to famine and, in turn, more dependent on food aid to survive. The indigenous (albeit product of colonialism) agricultural economy was replaced by a food-aid based financial system that produced increasing demand for it. It became a political tool as those in power kept certain groups in refugees camps to control the allocation of food directed at the camps.
By 1981, Western media sources put Ogaden war refugee figures at “more than one million.”_ A USAID food aid inspector at the time, Michael Maren writes that guerilla warfare following the official end of the war led journalists and Somali officials to conclude that there were around 1.5 million Ogaden refugees in camps near Hargeisa. But the problem was that “the million and a half refugees” who were supposedly in Somalia didn’t exist. The Somali government liked to say 1.5 million. Journalists liked to say 1.5 million…I saw official reports from UNHCR and USAID that put the number at less than 400,000. The camps were filled mostly with women and children and old men.”_ A New York Times article from 1980 corroborated this, saying that “males older than 15 account for only 9 percent of the population of the refugee camps, which have become havens for the families of guerillas.”
Most Ogaden males over fifteen were not in refugee camps, but those who were had an important task—to divert food aid and ensure the cooperation of camp residents. Most agree that the National Refugee Commission (NRC) and established clan and rebel networks within the camps stole or redirected more than half the food aid sent at the time (see Maren, NY Times). While much of the food aid fell into the hands of private businessmen who sold it in the market, a good portion of the stolen food profits supported the ongoing guerilla war against Ethiopia by funding arms for the Western Somali Liberation Front. This, in turn, created more refugees, which supported the ever-increasing influx of food aid. As Lewis also noted, “the male population of the camps provided a captive reserve source of manpower for illegal recruitment into Somalia’s armed forces.”
Some figures put theft of refugee aid funds at 80 percent, of which, most went to the Somali army.
Yet the theft of food aid was not limited to Barre’s political endeavors. Food aid became Somalia’s most valuable commodity, knocking home-grown sorghum, wheat and rice off the map in favor of American substitutes. Ordinary Somalis began looking to food aid for a way out of poverty, and many succeeded. Maren tells the story of Abdi Ahmed Yusuf, who, as an elder living in the Ogaden refugee camps in Beledweyne in the early 1980s, got rich from food aid: “I was buying food from refugees at a good price and selling it in Jalalaqsi town and returning with food, fuel, and watches that I would sell back to refugees. Soon I was bringing food to Mogadishu directly and making a lot of money. Then I married CARE wife. I was happy.”_ Yusuf was earning enough money from the sale of food aid in neighboring towns that he was able to marry another wife, whom he referred to using the name of the NGO responsible for food rationing in Beledweyne: CARE International.