If only we could blame drought and poverty for the famine in the Horn of Africa that would be so simple. Wealthy donor states could quickly send food, medicine, and tents to the starving, diseased, and displaced. Millions of people would be saved. Altruism would triumph.
Instead, ruthless leaders engage in political manipulation of starving people. In Somalia, the al-Shabaab Islamist rebel group plays a crafty game of brinkmanship with humanitarian organizations. Al-Shabaab's implicit threat is -- send assistance or babies will die. This game slyly transfers blame for the disaster to those who want to end it. The West guiltily absorbs the threat and its potential culpability. This allows al-Shabaab, and other opportunistic groups, to set the terms for international donations to end the famine. Even though those groups bear much blame for prolonging and exacerbating the crisis.
Militants' manipulation of aid raises excruciating moral dilemmas for potential donors: Under what conditions does aid do more harm than good? How can humanitarian organizations reconcile the imperative to help victims against hard political realities? Assessing the ethical and practical balance sheet leads to infuriatingly ambiguous results.
The arguments against unconditional assistance are not insignificant. First, negotiating with groups like al-Shabaab grants them legitimacy in both international and domestic realms. They emerge as power brokers and gatekeepers to the needy. Also, the aid -- including Land Rovers, laptops, and satellite phones -- can support a war economy if it is diverted by militants. Third, local and international workers face high risks of murder, abduction, and assault when working in such hostile areas. In the worst case, aid actually contributes to the prolongation of war and suffering.
Yet, humanitarian assistance saves lives. It may even be a moral imperative. Can we really calculate the value of a death prevented today against the uncertain potential of future harm? Should an aid worker turn away a starving refugee based on larger political deliberations about the war economy and international legitimacy? We can argue that the ability to end human suffering creates a responsibility to do so.
These dilemmas are not new. In the 1970s, combatants in the Nigerian civil war relied on a strategy which marketed starving Biafran children to a horrified Western public. In the 1980s, the dictatorial Ethiopian government reinforced its power through politicized distribution of aid. In the 1990s, similar dynamics occurred in the war between North and South Sudan, leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. After each debacle, Western donors and humanitarian organizations claimed to have learned painful lessons and promised to apply them to the next crisis.
So what will we say after the current famine abates? Will we learn more lessons the hard way? Probably. Unfortunately, the Western response is strongly biased toward the drought and poverty premise. That premise argues that the Horn of Africa famine is a humanitarian disaster; therefore humanitarian measures will resolve it. Not so.
The famine must be viewed within the messy political context of regional politics in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Aid organizations and their recipients deserve physical protection rather than rhetorical support. Otherwise, humanitarian aid workers will continue to be abducted, harassed, and killed as pawns of war. Innocent civilians will die while militants enrich themselves on stolen charity. If decades of history are any guide, donors will regret ceding all humanitarian leverage to al-Shabaab and other ruthless combatants.