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'The worst crisis I have ever seen'
The head of a South African aid group discusses famine in East Africa, working in Mogadishu and engaging al-Shabab.
Last Modified: 07 Sep 2011 19:18
Every day an estimated 1,300 children are dying from the famine in East Africa, says an aid activist [Reuters] 

As the UN and international aid agencies battle to operate out of Mogadishu, the civil war-torn Somali capital, smaller aid agencies have been quietly bringing medical teams, delivering aid and negotiating a move into al-Shabab territory as the famine in the Horn of Africa threatens to devastate Somalia.

But as concerns grow over the mishandling of food aid and corruption by third-party contractors inside the country, there remains little understanding of the conditions inside the capital. Despite this, a small number of aid groups have refused to delegate their work there to third-party organisations.

One such group, Gift of the Givers, a humanitarian organisation from South Africa, has over the past month
chartered six cargo airplanes to Mogadishu and currently has 1,700 tonnes worth of aid on four ships en route to the Somali capital.

This month, the organisation will set up a medical facility in Mogadishu's largest hospital, in an attempt to concentrate efforts to treat and rehabilitate thousands of patients.

Azad Essa speaks to Imtiaaz Sooliman, the head of Gift of the Givers, about Africa's response to the crisis, working in Mogadishu, engaging al-Shabab and solving the crisis.

Q: Gift of the Givers has operated for around two decades now intervening in countries from Bosnia to Haiti. How would you compare this crisis to other humanitarian crises you have encountered?

A: In my 19-years-experience, I would say that that this was the worst crisis I have ever seen. It is not like Bosnia where there was war, or an earthquake like Haiti where there was structural damage to buildings. Here there is slow death in front of your eyes… we are talking about four million people affected, mostly children. Every parent with five or six children are forced to watch their children waste away, day by day. And we are not talking about one household, we are talking about tens of thousands of households across the country, from the south to Mogadishu.

Q: How devastating is the scale of the crisis?

A: To put it into perspective: A two-year-old child begins to look like a three-month-old baby within some weeks. And again, we are talking about thousands. And parents are emotionally and psychologically affected, because there is nothing they can do to save the child. Imagine watching your child die in front you. It is a slow, painful process and for 12 to 16 weeks you go through this agony knowing that there is nothing you can do.

Consider that we have just completed the month of Ramadan - where children in many countries fast from dawn to dusk. Normally when children fast and towards the late afternoon, they might complain that they want to break the fast because of their hunger and as a parent you say, "it will end soon" so hold on … they might cry but they know that there are only a few hours remaining, and then they can choose whatever they want to eat. But these kids here in Somalia, the tears have long since dried up and there is no expectation of food. There is just nothing to eat. The figures are startling: Every day 1,300 children die.

Q: Let's talk about numbers. Three to four million Somalis affected, 12 million in the region in danger, tens of thousands of children malnourished … how are ordinary people meant to make sense of all these startling figures?

A: It is not possible to make sense if you are not in it. Television pictures do not tell the full story. Being in it captures more than just the essence and a picture cannot tell you the scale of the damage, the emotional suffering, the individual stories – but given the nature of people - consider South Africa – an entire nation has still mobilised for Somalia. We have received unprecedented support. Seeing the pictures of children so emaciated has touched the hearts of people. There has never been such a campaign in the history of this country.

Q: But the South African government's support has been disappointing, has it not?

A: They were very slow to respond initially. To be fair to them, they invited me to speak to portfolio committee in parliament on Somalia and at that point they had pledged R1 million ($150,000) and after I addressed them on August 9, their stance did change and within 24 hours they got the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to set up a nationwide campaign to raise funds. They put up an airplane and they increased the amount to R8 million ($1.2m).

Q: But this is a small amount. The UN says almost $1bn needs to be raised for the relief effort?

A: I cannot answer for government. They need to explain that. As I said, they increased aid to $1.2m and they asked to set up a fundraising campaign. They also offered a military plane to transport aid and they also pledged to transport any items from the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region – from all 15 countries – to Somalia for relief efforts. They also instructed members of parliament, provincial governments and other departments to locate surplus funds from their budgets and push the fundraising effort. Collectively, the government machinery has been raising funds and this has been good enough. We needed government to set an example. One has to remember that we have millions needing help in South Africa itself, just like other African countries.

Q: How would you rate the African Union's response considering that only $46m was raised at the recent AU 'pledging summit' held in Addis Ababa?

A: For me, this was Africa's first fundraising campaign and that is a start. We have never had this before and the fact that we have never had an appeal as Africans, this is quite some progress and a huge step forward. Consider a country like Lesotho which is a 100 per cent donor recipient country, pledges $50,000 – that is quite a statement: "We don't have but from what we don't have, we are willing to share." Also, Southern Sudan, which just became a country itself, put up $1m - which is huge for a country which has no infrastructure at all. As long as Africa puts out a message that they are acting and taking some initiative, it is a positive step, because there is no way that we are able to take care of this on our own. The world can see we are trying.

Q: Yours is one of the few international organisations operating in Mogadishu. Most international organisations and agencies rely on local contractors to perform their duties in Mogadishu. Is this correct?

A: This is the problem. Most of these agencies operate from Nairobi, Kenya, and operate through third-party persons in Mogadishu. You see products from agencies sold on the streets and because you rely on these third parties to do your work for you, it is never done as efficiently or effectively as you would complete it. There are so many competing interests in Mogadishu, so many trying to make an income … like you have war lords, here you have food lords, who control the food and if you pass on food to them, they take 90 per cent of the supplies and just 10 per cent goes to whom it is meant to go to. We make sure that we do not operate like that. The TFG [Transitional Federal Government] told us that we were the first agency in recent times to ensure that we did our own work, from collection to distribution.

Q: What is the scale of your operations in Mogadishu?

A: We went from feeding 300 families to 500 families to presently a number of around 20,000 people. We also initially dealt with 5,000 patients. We have partnered with an organisation called SHADOW. We have put up four feeding centres, and we have fed the same 20,000 every day since August 9. And in the interest of continuity, we do not want to move to another area and allow people in this area to go backwards.

We cook the food and feed directly. We cannot save four million people ourselves, so we are focusing on what we can do. The children we treated in the camps have visibly improved, they are even running around, something they couldn't do before. At the same time, we have an outreach programme, so 300 families in another area are given dry rations, rice, beans, maize, every day. These are given to help them survive.

Q: Do you work with UN agencies like the World Food Programme, who are dealing with around 800,000 people in Mogadishu?

A: They have not approached us; we are independent, and we do our work in our own way. People know we exist, and if they want to use us, they are welcome to use us, but on our terms. We decide which camps we will go to, and we are not burdened by administrative structures and so our focus is finding the people who need help and then working [out] a way to help them. We also do not favour any political party or government - and the TFG knows that we will not pass on our aid to them or anyone else. Our policy is simple: we will deliver and implement our own relief work.

Q: Surely there is a need for consistency and coordination, crucial elements in any humanitarian effort?

A: In my experience, a lot of the administration forms a stumbling block. When I went to Bosnia in 1992, the UN said there was no need for any hospitals and we built the world's first and only containerised and mobile hospital. I showed them how many sites there were - where hospitals were needed; they spent so much time on paperwork, that we eventually bypassed them. In some areas, people were waiting more than 20 weeks for a hospital and when they told me that hospital facilities were not required, I lost all faith in them. They were an obstacle for progress, rather than supporting progress.

Secondly, whenever you looked for them, they were in expensive hotels, sitting in expensive cars and they said they were busy. And yes, the UN has some really good employees; some would give their heart and their soul to do something that they believe, but too much goes into administration, into vehicles and into hotels and salaries and less gets to the people.

And there are always too many restrictions. In Haiti, they would dictate which areas one could go, and which society to hang around with, and live in such and such a compound and then work out which areas to go. We set up our own structures and while others could move around for three to four hours, we could move around for eight to ten hours. And we don't follow their system. As I said, our policy is to get to the people and remove the obstructions.

Q: How do you guarantee that the right people are receiving attention and that you are receiving the right intelligence?

A: We work with people on the ground and implement the relief ourselves which means the entire system is rather hands-on. In every country I have been, I have always found a local partner, who speaks the language and knows the area. In Haiti, for instance, we worked with Caritas, a church organisation, which helped create access. After working for 19 years, with a such a hands-on approach, it does not take long to recognise a scam when you see one. Also, when people on the ground realise that we are around to help and work with them as opposed to push relief down their throats and interfering with the internal structures of the country, then you rarely face a problem.

Q: Speaking about trust: The UN is a meant to be a secular, non-aligned organisation, but you are an Islamic organisation. Do you face difficulties being taken seriously?

A: It came up as an issue in the early years. But people realised that we are first and foremost a humanitarian organisation. Yes, we are Muslim, and proud of it, but in keeping with Islamic principals, we help all people, no matter [what] race or religion. Islam is very clear - help humanity - and we stand by that. Our medical teams are multicultural in nature, and we do not only intervene in humanitarian disasters affecting Muslims. The earthquake in 2002 in Gujarat – with mostly Hindus affected, the first African organisation to respond was us, a Muslim organisation. In Haiti, a predominantly Christian country, we also intervened and Church groups rushed to work with us. In South Africa itself, 99 per cent of our aid goes to non-Muslims. Yet, the majority of donors are Muslim, though this is also changing as people understand that we a humanitarian organisation.

Q: But then why is it that you have access to Mogadishu? Is it really that bad or is just a perception?

A: The media has created the perception that Mogadishu is a no-go area. I also thought this to be the case. And this is the perception. But when I saw pictures of those children in Dadaab in Kenya – to be honest – I saw those images on Al Jazeera – I realised that if these people had made it to Kenya in such a state, obviously, inside Somalia had to be far worse. This is logical. As a humanitarian organisation, we cannot say 'it can't be done'. It has to be done, there is no option but to get to Mogadishu. And so I went to Mogadishu.

Yes, there were security concerns, but there was enough security to land a plane and get supplies. In this relatively safer area of the city, there are around one million people who need help and one cannot say they are inaccessible. At least helping one million would be better than doing nothing. In seven days, we put four planes into Mogadishu. We have sent two more planes since and we are now sending another two planes soon. We also have 1,700 tonnes of aid on four different ships going to Mogadishu.

Q: Who benefits from the perception of Mogadishu being totally inaccessible?

A: We would like to know what is the story behind this – is it an international agenda? Is it a local agenda? My question to the Somali people is that for 21 years you have fought and what have you achieved? You country is in chaos, your people are starving – and was it worth it? Let's try to talk to each other instead now. Unless of course, there is an agenda from the outside. And, where resources are involved, there is always an agenda. Somalis have uranium deposits, they have diamond deposits, the largest coastline in Africa – it has a lot of strategic importance, and for only 12 million people living in such a large country, each one could be wealthy. Why has there been no progress? There has to be another reason.

Q: Do you work with al-Shabab? And why is there a media blackout on their demands, especially the contention that foreign aid organisations are creating dependency?

Firstly, I don't believe everything that they say, because I have had dealings with them already. Yes, they have a point, there is dependency, but can they solve the hunger problem at this point in time? The dependency is life saving. They are saying 'don't be dependent,' but do they expect help to fall from heaven? Are they going to cultivate crops and feed the people in 24 hours? They need to be realistic. This is just a short term dependency and they need to ask themselves if they have found any alternative to this dependency. Have they made any developments since taking control of certain areas in 2006?

Secondly, they contacted us and told us that having seen us work in Mogadishu they wanted to start a dialogue towards giving us access into the areas they still control south of Mogadishu. But they won't allow the foreign members of the delegation to come, they will only allow Somalis to enter their zones. But I didn't agree with this. They even said we could use Kismaayo as a port. Also, they only gave us a verbal invitation to come, and I wanted it in writing. But they could not offer the invite in writing [it seems] because they are split into so many factions … and if they are not stable, how would my teams feel secure? Furthermore, they wanted us to pass on the aid to them for distribution and that is unacceptable to me, because we do not work like that. We were told that if we did not follow their instructions fully, they could make life extremely hard for us. And though the south needs help, we have so much still to do in Mogadishu.

Q: Al-Shabab has a very poor reputation in the media. Everyone uses "we cannot go in because of al-Shabab" as a stock phrase. Based on your dealings with them, is this fair or is this a convenient excuse?

Well, if they are not going to plug their story to the world, how are people supposed to know? We are saying to them, if you need help, and say you have nothing to hide, then why create all these obstacles? We are not interested in their politics, we just want to help their people. And we have media that travel with us, and so if they want to tell their story, they have access to do so as well. It is clear that al-Shabab needs an opportunity to tell their story, and until then, we can only speculate and have perceptions about them, but ultimately they need to tell their story. But sometimes, it seems as if they are not allowing the media to tell their story.

Q: For how much longer will you be operating in Somalia. When does this situation 'end'?

A: We can only go on as long as we have support. Secondly, we are hoping that African countries will get involved towards creating a political solution. South Africa's parliament has been raising questions about getting involved politically towards getting a solution. The AU is also talking about a solution. Getting all the factions to the table is the only reasonable chance for a solution. And their people won't suffer. This relief work is not the solution, this is just dressing on the top that can potentially save the lives of thousands … we need to do this now, but this won't solve the problem -  there has to be a political solution so they can develop and use their resources effectively. Even if there is another disaster and we need to intervene, this project won't stop. We have 25 projects running concurrently and we can handle three or four countries at the same time. We must remember that even the UN is dictated to by the amount of funding they receive from member states, so it is not as if they have a limitless fund as well.

But this cannot go on forever. When the rains come, they need to get back to their farms, and the government and the world need to work together in putting this country back together.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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