The theft of UK aid in Somalia by the militant group al-Shabaab risks provoking a set of reactionary responses. The humanitarian community must remain committed to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations.
This past weekend Andrew Gilligan wrote in The Telegraph  that al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group with ties to al-Qaeda, had ‘confiscated’ £480,000 worth of UK-funded ‘humanitarian materials and supplies’ between November 2011 and February 2012. The information was first released within the Department for International Development’s (DFID) latest Annual Report and Accounts . The UK’s international development secretary, Justine Greening, later clarified that the materials appear to have been destroyed after being stolen – rather than being used by the group and its members.
Gilligan’s piece, citing unnamed ‘aid industry experts’, claimed that this loss of aid – which accounted for roughly half a per cent of Britain’s £101 million aid programme for Somalia that year – would allow al-Shabaab to continue operating ‘for a “fairly long time”’. The article went on to insinuate that either DFID was negligent in failing to respond to the theft or that DFID was financing aid organisations which were secretly colluding with al-Shabaab. Neither claim stands scrutiny.
While the theft of £480,000 in UK-funded humanitarian supplies is regrettable, those resources hardly appear to have been influential in the decades-long conflict against al-Shabaab. Consider the group’s fate since the ‘confiscation’ occurred more than a year and a half ago. Since the start of this year the group has suffered major strategic losses both on and off the battlefield. On August 20 last year a new and more permanent government replaced the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) which strove to expand its writ in and beyond Mogadishu over eight fraught years.
Attacks on aid workers in Somalia – nearly eight months into the year – are one-sixth what they were in 2011 and 2012, according to the Aid Worker Security Database. This past Eid-al-Fitr passed largely peacefully in Mogadishu despite the tendency for terrorist and militia groups to perpetrate large-scale attacks during this period in other conflict-affected countries. Al-Shabaab’s confiscation of humanitarian supplies has not had the disastrous security consequences that Gilligan indicated. This is not to say that violence in Somalia is not still problematic – as horrific attacks in June and July clearly demonstrate. However, claims that al-Shabaab’s seizure of aid has fuelled the group and put British citizens at risk is misleading and transparently intended to undermine support at home for the UK’s overseas aid programme.
On Gilligan’s second point, that DFID was negligent or actively collaborates with organisations that support al-Shabaab, the argument continues to falter. The materials were stolen from two of the most professional humanitarian agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Furthermore, it would be unreasonable to expect staff members from either organisation to physically challenge armed militants attempting to take possession of aid materials. And Gilligan presumably understands that there are few responses open to the British government in the wake of such incidents. Decrying al-Shabaab for the theft would achieve little and invite further attacks against British targets and aid facilities in the future – thus harming the UK’s security and humanitarian interests.
As experts consider how to prevent the loss of aid in conflict-affected locations such as Somalia, experience has shown that officials should be wary of employing increasing numbers of private security personnel – one common response to incidents such as this. Could dozens of armed guards have prevented UK-financed assistance from being stolen? Perhaps. But it is certain that the expense involved in private security – for UK aid programmes across Somalia – would have cost DFID’s aid budget far more than £480,000. Costs involved in employing thousands of private guards to protect aid projects in Afghanistan has, for instance, cost hundreds of millions of US dollars according to American government sources. This practice has drained aid dollars away from the pockets of needy Afghans and has hardly contributed to peace and stability. The same story could be told of Iraq.
Worse yet, as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere, private security companies – which tend to absorb partisan tribal militias and disgruntled former soldiers – may collude with the very groups they are intended to guard against.
When it comes to protecting foreign aid, often the best defence is to demonstrate that, while mitigating threats and risks, the humanitarian community remains firmly committed to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations.