Amidst Somalia’s Looming Hunger, New Book Indicts Role of Aid Agencies

Nairobi, KENYA — A famine is looming in Somalia – yet again. Towards the end of July, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) announced that over 350,000 displaced people in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, were in need of food aid and humanitarian assistance. The UN agency warned of “alarming malnutrition rates” across the country, citing dire drought conditions amidst reduced seasonal rains.To many, the looming hunger crisis is reminiscent of the devastating situation in Somalia back in 2011, when more than 250,000 people, half of them under the age of five, died in one of the country’s worst droughts in decades.

In “War Crimes,” Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer and journalist, revisits those critical days to assess whether humanitarian agencies “manufactured” disasters in the country, or rather, exaggerated figures in a bid to raising money. Using a blend of personal interviews, contextual analysis and media articles, Warah also discusses how warlords, politicians and foreign governments have over the years conspired to steal, divert and misuse aid money, further deepening the state of anarchy in Somalia.

rasna-warah-war-crimes“War Crimes” is Warah’s second book on Somalia published in just under two years. The new book candidly delivers the reality on the ground in Somalia, a country whose past is fraught with failure and infighting. Throughout the book, she tries to understand how forces beyond the ordinary Somali citizen have contributed to the destruction of the nation-state, and have in return greedily benefitted from the spoils of war and chaos.

At the center of these groups is the Somali government, whose principal members have been repeatedly accused of siphoning aid money for personal use. In an interview with Abdirizak Fartaag, a whistleblower and former head of the Public Finance Management Unit under the administration of President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Warah brings to fore how tens of millions of dollars were allegedly withdrawn from the Central Bank using a chit system known as fadlan. This “personalization of public funds,” Fartaag tells Warah, “installed a patronage system within government that rewarded loyal militia and warlords.”

The United Nations doesn’t also escape the critical appraisal of Warah’s writing. In an entire chapter titled “Feasting on Famine,” the author delves into how lack of transparency and accountability has undermined the notion of progress in Somalia. Warah herself worked for the UN as an editor and writer for more than a decade, and has previously edited an anthologyMissionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits – critiquing the aid industry in East Africa.

In a startling revelation showcasing the lack of monitoring and scrutiny in aid projects, Georges-Marc Andre, the European Union’s representative to Somalia, tells Warah that he cannot give an accurate assessment of the European Commission’s projects in Somalia because of the 2003 Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement, which allows the UN as an implementing agency to “manage EC contributions in accordance with their own regulations and rules.” This lack of transparency and critical knowledge of the impact of donor money on the ground, Warah believes, might have broadened the state of underdevelopment in Somalia across the years.

Warah’s book is an important introduction into a murky world of the confluence of politics, aid and power in Somalia. It is also a timely book, and offers tasty morsels of information for anyone remotely interested in the story of Somalia. At a time when the country is going through a journey to recovery and stabilization, Warah writes with such poignancy, clear mindedness and abrasiveness about what went wrong in Somalia, who was involved and what can be done about it.

Like any other book, Warah’s latest is not without its limitations. In parts, the book reads as part selective history, part term paper analysis, and fails to take into account the complicated history of Somalia before the two-decade war began in 1991. Warah only explores recent periods starting from when the Transitional Federal Government was instituted in 2004 till its replacement by the current government in 2012.

The book’s arguments and references also weave into an academic collection of media reports and textbook study materials, rather than a cogent insight and analysis of the author’s understanding of Somali politics.

This can be seen in her insipid dwelling on the history of Kenyan elections, the difference between the Sufi and Wahhabi religious ideology, the realpolitik of clanism in Somalia, and the coming-of-age of al-Shabaab, all in a bid to comprehend the Somali problem. The book, just like its author, is also very Kenya-centric, and seems to mull over Kenya’s incursion into Somalia in 2011, and the effects that has had on Kenya’s security and ethnic Somalis.

In the end, Warah’s book presents itself as an overture to a longer debate about Somalia and the politics of development (and underdevelopment). And if the reader is looking for any signs of hope or solution out of this morass, then Warah offers none, stating, “If there is hope for Somalia, I have not seen evidence of it yet.”

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How warlords, politicians, foreign governments and aid agencies conspired to create a failed state in Somalia.

By Rasna Warah

173 pages. Author House. $16.75

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