Somalis call the shots on food aid

SOMALIA may be without a government, but it is still a country run by Somalis. The first rule of the aid agencies functioning successfully here is to work with and through the local people. It is the local people who call the shots.

Between January and August the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) brought 83,000 tons of food into the country. It is now achieving a rate of 20,000 tons a month, approximately half the estimated needs of southern Somalia. It uses helicopters, ships, fishing boats, barges, planes and any and every port and airport it can.

Dominik Stillhart, the head of the Mogadishu south sub-delegation of the ICRC estimates that only 5 per cent of food is being lost to looting. This success could not be achieved without a detailed understanding of the clan and sub- clan alliances within the country.

The agency feeds about 900,000 people through 600 kitchens, 100 in south Mogadishu, 100 in the north of the city and 400 elsewhere. None of these can be run and no food can be transported to them without clan-based agreements. For a kitchen to function, every employee must belong to the same clan.

Looting is kept to a minimum, as the kitchens deal in cooked food, which cannot be resold on the market. Initial distribution from port to warehouse and then to feeding point is done through detailed negotiations with Somalis, each with their local areas of control, all along the line. Without the guidance of the Somali Red Crescent through this minefield, this could not have been achieved.

But according to other workers here, before humanitarian work is carried out the goodwill of the most powerful clans must be bought, no matter who you are and who you are helping. What is certain, is that clan elders do not have complete control of their clans, and that alliances between clans can shift with the wind.

Hence the tension at the centre of every humanitarian operation in the country. Save the Children runs a careful, methodical programme. They feed only under- fives. Those whose weight-to- height ratio is only 70 per cent of normal - those on the edge of death - should get six therapeutic feeds a day. Security problems mean they cannot be fed at night, so they only get four. Those with an 80 per cent ratio receive two supplementary feeds a day.

Save the Children has never had its food looted, but no one pretends the reason for this is other than the fact that its special preparation for undernourished children is not marketable.

It relies, for the supervision of its centres and for all its transport, on Somalis, and takes their advice whenever it employs anyone. The viability of the operation depends on always making the right decisions in this area.

The danger of not taking such precautions is immense. Steve Tomlin, the field director of the US International Medical Corps (IMC), says there is a 'very high correlation between food distribution and the number of patients we receive in our emergency room with gunshot wounds'.

The IMC is working at a small hospital in Baidoa, 150 miles north-west of Mogadishu. When it arrived at the hospital, the institution had 15 patients. It now has more than 100 and is carrying out up to 14 surgical procedures a day. Disputes over food now reaching the area are the main factor in the upsurge in injuries. In Mogadishu, too, the hospital where the IMC works - one of three in the city - sees between 30 and 60 gunshot wounds a day.

It appears that if the US is still thinking of flying large amounts of food to Somalia, dropping it, and leaving it to overstretched aid organisations to distribute, it had better think again.

(Photograph omitted)