Why Aid Can't Reach Somalia

The Somalian drought victims are severely lacking in aid, but not for a want of trying on the part of aid workers; instead, terrorist activity and bureaucratic red tape is proving problematic for the relief effort. While it is always difficult to raise money for a cause that is thousands of miles away, aid agencies that are trying to help those affected by the famine that is ravaging southern Somalia face more challenges than usual. They aren't being allowed into the distressed region in the first place.

The United Nations officially declared a famine in two areas in the east African country two weeks ago, but little has been done to improve the condition. One of the main impediments is the group Al Shabaab, considered a terrorist group by the United States, which has a despotic hold over the areas in need.

The group, which has publicly declared its support of Al Qaeda and has vowed to rid the country of Western influences, will not allow foreign aid agencies legal access into the country. Making matters worse, Al Shabaab is preventing starving people from leaving the country in order to find food in neighboring Kenya.

"They're acting like a form of immigration control and trying to keep people in the country — especially food producers — by cutting peoples hands off who try to leave," says Catherine Bestemen, a Colby College professor who has written extensively on Somalia.

The World Food Programme, run by the UN, has some basic organization in the capital of Mogadishu but not in the southern areas which have been hit the hardest by the most recent drought.

"The leaders in southern Somalia have not allowed humanitarian access since January 2010," says World Food Programme senior spokeswoman Rene McGuffin. "The severity in southern Somalia is a combination of humanitarian access combined with the worst droughts that this region has seen in 60 years."

The frequency of droughts isn't helping either. It's not easy to raise money, and public concern, for something that seemingly happens every two years. Prior to the current crisis, there were severe droughts in 2005-2006 and 2008-2009.

"Each drought is proclaimed the worst drought in 50 years," says Kathleen Colson, director of the BOMA Fund, which runs economic empowerment programs in Kenya and Somalia. "The droughts are getting progressively more severe, last longer, and come more frequently."

Colson attributes the larger issue to a lack of larger solutions.

"People are providing food aid but it's not a sustainable solution," she adds. "You provide food aid for one drought and then what happens? The larger aid organizations, governments or large NGOs are hesitant to do economic empowerment programs because they believe the cost per person is too high because of the low economic density. They consider anything other than food aid too expensive because the arid lands typically have low population density."

Global warming presents another threat to the country's economy, with many of the corn and sesame crops being threatened by even more droughts.

The immediate concern, however, is the lack of access for charities and aid workers. Al Shabaab's role in blocking the borders is regarded as the major obstacle by many, but the U.S.'s Patriot Act is contributing to the problem as well.

"The Patriot Act prevents any individual from providing aid to any known terrorists, and Al Shabaab are known terrorists," says Ken Menkhaus, a professor from Davidson College in North Carolina, and an expert on East African issues. "Of course [Al Shabaab] will take advantage of contracts and it will definitely aid Al Shabaab themselves, and that is not a small problem. But we have reason to believe that some leaders will break and will allow food aid in. The U.S. government is moving on something akin to a waiver of the Patriot Act for this, the NGOs are working actively to prepare themselves to try to do something again, and so the real wild card is Al Shabaab."