Relief teams criticise UN plan to halt Somali food aid




Mark Huband in Mogadishu

The Guardian, 5 August 1992

United Nations food supplies brought in through the port of Mogadishu are to be suspended for up to a month at a time when at least 1.5 million Somalis are close to starvation. The suspension is due to the complete absence of security at the port, where fighting between rival clans intent on stealing supplies left five dead two days ago.

The plan, confirmed last night by the UN relief co-ordinator to Somalia, David Bassiouni, comes at a time of unprecedented criticism of UN operations in Somalia by other relief agencies for the slowness of its response to the country’s needs.

Mr Bassiouni said the UN wanted to reorganise operations at Mogadishu in an effort to improve security and end the extensive theft of food during off-loading from relief ships. Reacting to the UN plan, the head of one relief organisation said: “It’s an extraordinary, step, when the need is so great, and it’s clear that the security situation is only going to improve when the food is so abundant that people don’t need to steal it.”

Somalia, racked by clan fighting and civil war, is receiving less than half the monthly food import requirement of 70,000 tonnes which was brought in before the conflict erupted and the economy brought to a standstill. Most of the 7 million population are reliant on food aid, with 350,000 people being fed in makeshift food kitchens in Mogadishu alone, where up to 200 people arrive from outlying areas everyday.

Mr Bassiouni said the UN plan to halt food aid for a month would be accompanied by demands that Somalis start to adopt a greater role in providing security on an official basis by establishing a police force which the UN may train and equip. All the aid agencies rely on hired gunmen who travel on the roofs of relief vehicles with machine guns to protect the doctors, nurses and aid workers.

Since May the UN has sent 22,000 tonnes of food to Somalia, worth £30 million, just over a third of the 64,000 tonnes it has earmarked for the country. In the view of smaller aid agencies, the slow pace of UN aid, along with its reliance on using the large ports, has left its reputation in tatters and worsened the catastrophic situation.

In an attempt to prevent attracting people to a few sources of food which would displace people further and increase pressure on large towns, the Red Cross has brought over 70,000 tonnes of food to Somalia through 18 different entry points. The method is a response to the delicate political situation which has led to the division of the country into fiefdoms. By spreading the entry points, rival clans are less likely to attack each other to steal food as it is more evenly distributed from the start, the Red Cross believes.

“The UN are not in touch with the reality here,” the head of one relief organisation said yesterday. “Their biggest mistake was to come late and then not do enough.”

The need for the agencies to deal with local businessmen and clan leaders to ensure food reaches the hungry has led to open profiteering which most relief workers have accepted as the only method of distribution. However, the under-resourced UN World Food Programme is refusing to pay the £65 per tonne being demanded by lorry owners to ensure that a 10,000-tonne food consignment, due to arrive before the planned suspension of food imports, reaches the thousands starving in the town of Baidoa.

Smaller aid agencies such as the Red Cross, the Save Children Fund and Medecins Sans Frontieres, have received little backing from the UN’s vast resources. Requests to the UN for resources, such as medical supplies, have been refused on the grounds that it is not within the UN mandate to supply hospitals other than for specific aid to women and children.

Mr Bassiouni is highly critical of the lack of resources allotted to Somalia by the newly created UN Humanitarian Affairs Department, of which he is the representative.

“I’m supposed to be creating a database of projects under way. I’m supposed to provide air support to the aid agencies. I’m supposed to provide security for both the UN and other relief workers. The lack of resources means that I can’t do any of these things. One feels that if this was not happening in Africa, I wouldn’t be facing these problems,” he said.

The UN’s slow response to the food needs has made its attempts at playing a political and military role much more difficult. The UN already recognises its intention of sending 500 UN troops to Mogadishu to protect relief workers will face continued objection by Somalis.

“It’s true that the average Somali is against the presence of UN troops and that they will oppose it,” said Mr Bassiouni. “But one of the things that undermines their view is the deteriorating security situation. They would like to give the impression that they are in control,” he said, suggesting that the UN is prepared to make a decision on bringing in troops without seeking the approval of the warring factions.

This could prove disastrous, as it would mean UN troops travelling through territory which ts fiercely guarded by clan leaders who have made it clear that they will shoot UN troops as readily as they shoot members of rival clans.


© Guardian Newspapers. All rights reserved