Friday, July 24, 2009

The effects of the Somali pirates on aid

The Hufington Post has an interview with Steve Hansch of the Open Society Institute. Hansch just returned from Somalia after researching the pirates and political climate in the country.

Piracy began threatening international vessels in one of the main international shipping routes lying off the Somali coast after the collapse of the government there in 1991. Who are the pirates?

They are often unemployed young men, primarily from Puntland in Somalia, who have seen their fishing decline because of overfishing of their waters by international fishing. They've found that if they occasionally intercept people, the insurance companies reward them for it.

Has piracy been affecting the distribution of aid relief to the local civilian population?

No, the pirates have on occasion boarded food shipments, but overall an enormous amount of aid has been delivered. There's a completely different phenomenon going on in Somalia which I don't want to refer to as 'piracy'. In the central part of Somalia where the main aid needs are, aid workers and doctors have been taken hostage. It's obviously similar to the piracy, but it's not the same as boarding a ship. Now there are no longer ex-pat aid staff working in Somalia. The level of ex-pat aid staff working in the area is the lowest area per aid dollar spent in any country.

Aid agencies have been saying for some time now that Somalia is a highly dangerous place to work in given the continued political instability, violence, and kidnappings. After the recent assaults on UN offices in Somalia, a UN official said yesterday that the UN would not 'back out' of the country, but is it feasible to continue humanitarian efforts in this environment?

A gang takes people hostage and hopes it will make them millionaires because the government of those hostages will step in and pay the ransom. Governments have created a market by being willing to pay millions of dollars. Most aid professionals are working for NGOs and the ransoms that have been paid have not been negotiated at the initiative of those organizations, which could use their position to work through mediators. Governments have leapfrogged the NGOs.

Are aid agency ex-pat staff likely to return in the coming months?

I don't know when they'll go back in. Crime is a funny thing. In the long term history, some things don't seem to change.

What is the situation regarding aid distribution now?

Aid is not just about taking stuff and distributing it. The largest share of U.S. government aid is in food aid, and it's being distributed through local Somali NGOs. But the more professional people from other countries are the people who would do the project supervising and monitoring, and they are not able to get through. One of the things humanitarian people do is make sure that key things are done; it's not just about spending dollars. That's been dramatically reduced, and that phenomenon is really being seen this year. Effectively in 2009, there are no ex-pats working in Somalia.

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