06 somaliarefugees g k1 Why Somalia's refugees are not being fed at home

Somali refugees queue for aid at Kenya camp (Roberto Schmidt AFP/Getty Images)

What does America’s war against al-Qaeda have to do with the struggle to prevent starvation in the Horn of Africa?

The connections are tentative, but what aid workers fear is that in trying to win one war, the Americans are prepared to let the humanitarian crisis in Somalia get worse.

Responsibility for this crisis ovewhelmingly lies with Islamist fighters in Somalia. They have threatened foreign aid agencies so that most of them have left. The result is an inhumane tragedy, largely hidden from the eyes of the outside world.

Yesterday I received an emergency update from one charity still brave enough to work in Somalia’s Middle Shabelle district, one of the regions worst hit by two years of failed rains.

The charity says that two districts there are “now in a state of famine”.  In all of 2010 they treated 1,500 malnourished children aged 5 or under. In just May and June this year, that had risen to 2,408 children. A whopping increase in the last two months.

Yet amazingly, foreign funding for this charity’s child nutrition programme has run out and so the programme in Middle Shabelle is having to close in the next few weeks.

Maybe this isn’t so amazing after all, because Shabelle is also the heartland of Al Shabaab, the Islamist militants who have been declared terrorists by the United States.

And in the words of one  exasperated  aid worker in the Horn of Africa, US policy in Somalia “is to let Somalis starve so that the people kick the Shabaab out”.

The USA declared Al Shabaab a terrorist organisation in February 2008, and since then America’s fears about the militants have grown exponentially.

On the front pages of both today’s New York Times and Washington Post, you will find the story of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali man accused by the Americans of being a Shabaab fighter and of being trained by al-Qaeda across the water in Yemen.

The question is how is America’s covert war conditioning its response to Somalia’s drought, the worst in 20 years?

Think about all those Somalis walking sometimes hundreds of miles into a large refugee camp in northern Kenya.  The UN says that up to 10,000 are arriving every week.  Some don’t make it that far and die on the way out.

Why are the Somalis leaving? They are leaving because they are not being fed at home.

Why are they not being fed? The main reason is that the UN World Food Programme, the world’s biggest humanitarian organisation, suspended its operations in South Central Somalia in January 2010 after the lives of WFP staff were threatened by Shabaab.

Today a Shabaab spokesman claimed the ban on foreign aid was being lifted. But which foreign aid worker would be prepared to take the risk of going back? And even if the aid workers could go back, would the world’s most powerful donor, the United States, fund them?

Aid workers on Shabaab’s front line say there is no point asking the Americans for money. Washington has already cut its funding to WFP Somalia to such an extent that WFP is currently 42 per cent short of its current target of $303m.

The Americans are not alone. The British have not funded the WFP in Somalia since 2009. On Sunday the UK trumpeted that it was giving  money to tackle the drought in East Africa, but all of that $61m is going to the WFP in neighbouring Ethiopia instead.

This refusal to commit to the WFP is partly because of a Channel 4 News investigation I led into the diversion of WFP supplies in Somalia. Our film was followed by a far more damning UN enquiry, though WFP rejects most of the claims made against it.

But now that drought and outright famine stalk the Horn of Africa, the question has to be asked whether the Americans are denying aid to ordinary Somalis as a weapon of war against militants who potentially threaten the West. Washington, not surprisingly, refutes this. Last week it agreed to give WFP Somalia $14.5m towards food transportation, plus 19 000 metric tonnes of food. It seems America is budging a little when faced with the prospect of starvation. Yet the fact remains that US-funded aid is targeted at central and northern Somalia, that’s Somaliland and Puntland, not at the Shabaab heartland further south.

Aid workers have to make all sorts of difficult compromises in conflict zones in order to get food to those who need it.  Extortion is a fact of life. The real scandal, far greater than the diversion of aid, will be if donors deliberately withhold it.

Shabaab has prime responsibility for Somalia’s refugee crisis. But the Americans, British and others have a responsibility not to make it worse.

Follow Jonathan Rugman on Twitter: @jrug