As the famine in Somalia grows more desperate by the day, international aid organizations are feeling the pressure to step up efforts to help prevent mass death and starvation. At the same time, these organizations face a disturbing dilemma, given that Somalia is one of the most dangerous places on the planet and delivering aid there puts relief workers at extreme personal risk.
The same holds true in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Pakistan, which count among a small number of highly violent environments, with vulnerable populations suffering from natural disasters, resource shortages, soaring food prices, and rampant terrorism.
Abby Stoddard, partner at Humanitarian Outcomes consultancy group, says that in cases like these, aid organizations generally must choose one of three unappealing options: scale down or cease operations until security situation improves; withdraw most or all of their employees to a safer area, and continue to run their programs via "remote control" through local staffers or partner organizations or contractors; or remain on site and continue to try to provide aid but with a heavily protected presence, including using armed guards, bunker-type compounds, armed escorts, and so on.
According to Stoddard, who is also a former humanitarian worker, the quantity and quality of aid provided, suffers in all of these scenarios, and the second “remote” option, adds a further ethical dilemma of transferring the risk from the organization’s own staff to their local partners, who typically have even fewer security resources to keep personnel safe.
A combination of these options is being implemented by United Nations staff in Somalia.
A senior U.N. official that requested anonymity for security reasons, said that the hazards in Somalia vary, depending on the area. The capital, Mogadishu, is classified a very risky area, although that could change.
On Saturday, the U.N. envoy for Somalia announced that Islamic insurgent group al-Shabab had begun to leave Mogadishu. Fighting in the capital between al-Shabab and the central government had already uprooted tens of thousands even before the famine. Since then the group has on-again, off-again, promised to let aid through.
The official admitted there is definitely a significant staff reduction and almost a complete stoppage of activities of the U.N. in southern Somalia because verbal and written threats from al-Shabab. Al-Shabab controls virtually the entire south where the famine is most acute. Some of these staffers have been moved to Nairobi, and some to the northern areas, which are more permissive.
“But as soon as there are assurances by al-Shabab for safe access to the famine-declared areas, we will go.”
Gordon Brown, a longtime field security officer for the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), says that for the U.N., there is no dilemma as to whether to provide aid or not. “We just need to decide how to provide aid to the safest extent possible,” said Brown in a telephone interview from WFP headquarters in Rome.
His experience is proof of this. In June 2009, when he was deployed in Peshawar, Pakistan, the luxurious Pearl Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying was bombed by the Taliban. He survived, but the accident left 11 dead and 50 wounded, including one U.N. worker.
“The hotel fell down and I fell down with it. I was severely injured. The initial damage assessment was that they would have to amputate my left leg and my lower left arm. But I refused and now I am fine.”
Brown, who has a solid military background, described how it feels before going to a dangerous zone for the first time.
“The first time you go feels like before your first dance with a girl. … You are a little nervous. But the more you do it, the better it gets.”