Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

NGOs and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government

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The backdrop to the famine in Somalia is a history of civil war and the collapse of the central functioning government in 1991. What many news outlets fail to mention is that with the civil war came devastation, displacement and the destruction of productive farm land and essential infrastructure. Factor in the absence of a strong, central government and the proliferation of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and we see a lack of long-term solutions for improving and adapting agricultural practices, water use and safeguarding the land against drought in what has historically been a breadbasket. The sad fact is that despite good rainfall between April and June 2010, in the lower Shabelle region locally-grown cereals only supplied about 40 percent of the nation’s needs. 

In an article published in Pambazuka News, Kenyan journalist Rasna Warah writes that Somalia is “being controlled by aid agencies” in the absence of strong central government. Basically, non-governmental organizations have taken on roles and responsibilities traditionally held by government without any of the accompanying accountability to civil society. Many of these NGOs are rather beholden to the interests of their donors and are further limited by turnover rates among aid workers, high administrative costs and limited rapport with the communities they serve.

“In effect, Somalia is being managed and controlled by aid agencies — the government is there in name only.”

An article in the June 30, 2011 Economist on “Conflict Mediation: Privatizing Peace” highlighted governments’ increasing tendency to hand over the early stages of conflict resolution to independent organizations. Non-governmental organizations are increasingly playing central roles in conflict resolution, especially since any government negotiating with opposition groups can be seen  as according them legitimacy. This was true for Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue stepped in for risk-averse governments like the Scandinavians and Swedish. In 2007, the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue was also involved in facilitating the power-sharing agreement that ended the post-election intertribal violence that claimed over a thousand lives in Kenya.  Furthermore, Somalia’s transitional federal institutions (the Transitional Federal Government and the Transitional Federal Parliament) are weak despite having the approval of the Arab League (AL) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

However, the breathless headlines on drought and famine in East Africa paint a different picture. Evocative images of emaciated and skeletal women and children are presented as dehumanized objects of sympathy further victimized by Al-Shabaab. The fact is that the story is not as simple as it seems. On July 6, 2011, BBC published an article entitled, ‘Somalia Islamists lift aid ban to help drought victims‘, but sixteen days later, the BBC’s headline read ‘Somali Islamists maintain aid ban‘. What’s more,  Al-Shabaab’s decision to pull out of Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu has been hailed as an opportunity for the forces of the Transitional Federal Government’s to make Mogadishu and the rest of southern, central Somalia safer and more accessible for aid organizations and workers.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations are cast as heroes here to ‘save’ the displaced women, men and children who have crossed the vast expanse of desert in search for food and water. Yet such misrepresentation obscures the true reasons why this former breadbasket is now a dry husk populated by malnourished people. Critically, it also masks the fact that poverty and underdevelopment is big business. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has asked donors for 1.6 billion USD for aid to Somalia. This is in addition to the billions in monetary and food aid already sent to non-governmental organizations in the area (including 512 milllion USD from the World Bank). Not only are the livelihoods of millions of Somalians and Kenyans at stake, but the livelihoods of aid workers also depend on this  donor funding.

Since 1980, there have been 42 droughts in the Horn of Africa. In spite of the billions in monetary, food and technical aid sent to the area, an alarming crisis of politics and natural resource management in the face of climate change has resulted in 12.4 million people in need of food and water in Somalia and northern Kenya. It is two years of poor rainfall coming on top of the  destruction and displacement from the conflict between the transitional federal government and Al-Shabaab, and the failure of non-governmental organizations to implement long-term preventative measures against desertification that have culminated in today’s famine. The question now is: When will we shift from short-term, transitional solutions to present realities and finally address the long-term, underpinning issues? How can we foster accountability between non-governmental organizations and the Transitional Federal Government and bring about productive cooperation?

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ArriannaMarie Twitter: ArriannaMarieArrianna Marie

Writer. UChicago Grad Student. Novelist-in-Progress. Budding Activist. Researcher. Consultant. Prolific Reader. History Buff. Lover of all things Africa. You can find my blog on human trafficking and development issues in Africa here.