January 6, 2010

The Price of Aid?

WFP Ration Distribution

It was announced this week that the World Food Program, WFP, has been forced to suspend programming within Somalia. The lives of 1 million people are now at risk, due to the demands of Al Shabaab placed upon WFP to pay a semi-annual $20,000 "security fee" and to dismiss female employees.

Food aid is always a challenging issue, as the provision of aid may undercut existing markets and lead to a struggling reconstruction process. However within Somalia, it is arguable that food aid is essential, as the instability within the region will likewise to continue to undermine the efforts of farmers and shop owners.

Of course one must question, will the payment of $3,300 per month to Al Shabaab lead to greater complications and tragedies than the potential deaths of 1 million people? Is each life only worth 1/3 of a single cent? Or are there bigger issues at hand? Will the provision of $40,000 per year lead to increased militancy, increased terrorism, and later increased demands? Will the present loss of 1 million lives prevent the loss of 5 million lives in the future? How can we weigh these factors?

This problem has always existed within the world of organized crime. Mafias demand a fee for protection, the store owner must pay that fee to be protected. The threat is of course the mafia. Witnessing this process occur within the international domain however is highly disturbing. It highlights the position of power held by Al Shabaab. Clearly attempts to remediate this problem can not be determined in a traditional militaristic fashion, with military tactics utilized to bring down a particular rebel group. The stabilization to this region will require global efforts, engaging Al Shabaab as a political power.

We do have institutions to deal with such issues, such as the International Criminal Courts. The question applies however to the desire of the international community to recognize Al Shabaab as a political actor, on par with a state actor.

But in doing so, we will have to change our language. While a state might sponsor terrorism, a state is not a terrorist. A political faction acknowledged as having the same credibility and responsibility of a state, may not necessarily be a terrorist. It will of course be a matter of targeting.

Is the civilian population harmed? Aid workers? Are these targets or unwanted causalities? Is Al Shabaab taking responsibility of its actions wherein civilians may be at risk? Could this demand for $20,000 actually be an attempt to assume proper responsibility in lieu of insufficient resources? If agencies began to acknowledge Al Shabaab as a credible holder of state responsibility, could greater stability be placed into the region?

Many Western governments argue that they do not negotiate with terrorists. However, at what point do we recognize a ruling party as something more than terrorists, and instead as a major power holder within a region, en route to state control? The Maoist have overtaken Nepal, the Taliban had Afghanistan, and now Al Shabaab are taking over Somalia. We might not like them, their ideas, or their actions. But when does this dialogue change?

At this time, I fully support WFP's withdrawal from Somalia, because I do not believe that supporting Al Shabaab's demands will lead to a better situation. However, I suspect that in the future, greater dialogue and cooperation will be required, although as we will never know when this time is upon us, we will miss the opportunity.

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