Bring Back the Kitchen Mamas

To help break the vicious cycle of corruption and extremism in Somalia, the international community must think long and hard about the politics and logistics of humanitarian aid. According to a UN report presented to the Security Council on March 16, as much as half of Somalia's food aid is siphoned away from needy people by corrupt aid workers, officials, and contractors. These networks divert aid, and the cash from selling it, to armed opposition groups like al-Shabab. The report singles out the World Food Programme, which has seen much of its aid redirected to militants. When aid doesn't go where it should, militants are emboldened while ordinary people go hungry -- and the vicious cycle continues.

This is dèjà vu all over again. In 1991, when the government collapsed and civil war erupted, relief groups struggled to provide aid amidst famine, fighting, and fleeing refugees, but their convoys were routinely looted by rival clans who used the food to feed militias, or barter for weapons, while women and children starved.

The solution, both then and now, is to enlist local women. In the 1990s, the women of Mogadishu approached Geoffrey Loane, then Somalia's Red Cross director, with a plan. According to Loane, the women had observed that shipping huge quantities of food to large feeding centers only encouraged looting. Instead, they proposed setting up smaller communal kitchens throughout the city. The Red Cross would supply firewood, water, and small loads of ingredients via donkey. Then, the "kitchen mamas" would immediately cook and serve the food, eliminating its cash value. The plan worked: each kitchen, run by 20 to 30 women, served 1,000 to 2,000 meals twice a day. As Loane recalls, "They became the lifeline of Mogadishu."

A similar arrangement is the best hope for delivering food aid today. Al-Shabab control 95 percent of the territory where aid operations were suspended in January, and in early 2010, clan violence in Hiiraan and Galguduud killed 138 people and displaced 63,000. Nearly half of Somalis need emergency assistance or support, and 20 percent of children under five suffer from acute malnourishment. These circumstances closely resemble the 1990s, when traditional aid could barely function. Small, hard-to-target kitchens may mean the difference between subsistence and famine. Now, as in the past, it pays to act locally.

The kitchen mamas showed that their local approaches had huge benefits beyond feeding people. In the 1990s, Mogadishu's kitchen mamas diverted some of their food to schools. These meals provided a critical incentive for some 30,000 students and teachers to continue classes amidst the chaos of war, even though the schools had been officially closed. In some areas, the kitchen mamas even devised a system for paying the teachers with food. The United States recognized the effectiveness of this grassroots effort, and started providing small grants to local women-led organizations focused on keeping schools running.

At the very least, functioning schools help prevent children from being recruited into militias. Today, with literacy below 40 percent and no education budget, Somalia desperately needs ways to keep schools open. As the kitchen mamas demonstrated, tying schools to kitchens is one way to achieve that.

Somalia's problems require much more than a military solution. There has been talk about a U.S.-backed offensive against al-Shabab. Many are optimistic, since government troops outnumber al-Shabab by as much as two to one. Somali forces, however, could be susceptible to disintegration along clan lines. Even if the offensive succeeds, Somalis worry that the troops would then turn on one another -- which is precisely what happened in 1991. Clan divisions are also what exacerbated the competition for and stealing of food aid in the 1990s.

One way to mitigate such consequences is to rely on women's ability, proven time and again, to generate stability by providing for and investing in their communities. That is the kind of stability Somalia needs most.

One thing is sure: ineffective aid strategies play straight into militants' hands. Al-Shabab survive largely by exploiting corrupt programs. Using local kitchens to feed the population without resorting to large, vulnerable convoys would remove one of al-Shabab's main buttresses. Without stolen food to sell, militants will have less cash to buy weapons, in turn diminishing their ability to dominate the land. If humanitarian organizations hope to deliver on their mission of providing relief to the people, and if the tide of extremism is to be stemmed in the Horn of Africa, then try bringing back the kitchen mamas.