Guest Blog from Tomás Ó Ceallaigh
Anyone with a heart, or even a scrap of interest in their fellow human beings, will find it hard not to have been moved by the recent scenes of hunger and desolation coming from the Horn of Africa. Countries such as Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Sudan are having all been affected in some way by an immense drought that has it the region. Eritrea may also be affected, but according to the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID) data is hard to come by there. At a time like this the support of a foreign government towards an affected group of people shows the great degree of compassion that people can show to their brothers and sisters around the world.
Indeed, it can go some way towards restoring my faith in humanity – especially where the Western powers are involved. In this spirit, on the 6th July, the UK Government stated that the size of their assistance will run to £38 million pounds (just under $61 million at mid-market rates) which, according to DFID is going to Ethiopia. This money is designed to assist the 3.2 million people who DFID believe to be at risk there and will be enough to feed “1.2 million people for three months” (DFID, 2011).On the 6th July, Andrew Mitchell, MP for International Development, added, that “the UK has also provided strong support for Kenya and for Somalia in the last financial year, funding emergency nutrition, health, water and sanitation and livelihood support activities.”
Why is it then that, in spite of this great act of kindness from one government to another, that I feel a little uneasy? The answer lies in the way in which foreign aid is dealt with. Questions that come to mind include: how is this to be distributed? Who is going to be responsible for its distribution? What measures are going to be put into place to prevent a similar crisis from happening again in order to ensure the long term ‘food security’ of East African people?
Some of the biggest problems with foreign aid are the strings that can come attached. In the case of the Horn of Africa crisis, DFID hasn’t made clear, publically at least, of any stipulation for the aid being sent to Ethiopia. This is not always the case. In 2005 the US government pledged $15 million over five years to fight AIDS – the conditions were that money would go primarily to pro-abstinence programmes and steer clear of clinics offering abortions (Moyo, 2009).
Then there is also the risk of aid getting into the wrong hands. According to Dr Adwok Nyaba, the SPLA – to some a rebel militia group, to others Southern Sudan’s de facto military until independence last week – had been diverting food aid away from the needy. He said, “[S]ince humanitarian assistance is only provided for the needy civil population, the task of distribution of this assistance fell on specially selected SPLA officers and men who saw to it that the bulk of the supplies went to the army” (ESPAC, 1998). The net result of this meaning that suffering citizens are left wanting.
So how can we work with aid to ensure that it gets to those who need it the most? It is a difficult question, especially when you are dealing with food and unstable regimes. In the case of Somalia the people have not only food security to worry about, but their own physical safety too in a country where the government is seen as practically ineffective. Al-Shabaab did state on the 6th April (BBC, 2011) that they would allow food aid in, but how far can they and will they be trusted to not use the relief aid as a weapon against their own people?
Ultimately, programmes to manage the distribution of aid have to be loosely co-ordinated by an overseeing body, the UN for example, but I feel that in as many cases as possible governmental involvement should be kept to a minimum. The responsibility of ensuring people can survive these testing times should lie with good-intentioned NGOs. The governments should be busy in the meantime coming up with strategies to ensure that this kind of humanitarian devastation does not happen again.
Simply providing a lump-sum of money to a foreign government will not do. Simply providing bags of grain to a government to pass on to its people will not do. Well-managed distribution of food, by groups free from political bias, religious bias and desire to ruthlessly profiteer from the vulnerable, acting independently of governmental interference is the only way. Even then, this should only happen as a starting point in a longer-term strategy to deal with firstly the refugee crisis growing in northern Kenya as a result of the Somali civil war and secondly the food security of the people of the Horn of Africa region.
How this can be achieved, with all of the world’s nations’ vested interests, I do not know. It is my sincerest hope that the money pledged to Ethiopia by DFID will be managed in a way that only benefits the people who actually need the assistance – not people looking to make money off the destitute. I also hope that this money is free from any political terms and conditions.
As for the other countries affected, I hope that suitable donors will come forward to assist in their management and survival through this potential catastrophe, but we must all recognise that, as people who love and care for Africa, as people who have Africa running through our veins, it is partly our responsibility to hold rogue elements to account whilst ensuring the survival and eventual flourishing of our brothers and sisters who may currently be suffering in East Africa.