The United Nations says it needs to “scale up” relief efforts in two famine-stricken areas of Somalia. But the regions are dominated by the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab, which has limited the work that international aid groups can do in its territory. Our correspondent looks at how aid agencies are operating in such a hostile environment.
Al-Shabab hostile to foreign aid organizations
Since al-Shabab took control of south-central Somalia a few years ago, they have had a hostile relationship with foreign aid organizations.
The militants have accused foreign workers of being spies, have kidnapped some, and even killed some others. They have routinely diverted food and other supplies meant for starving Somalis into their own hands, leaving many foreign donors unwilling to send more aid.
So, what can aid agencies do to get access to vulnerable populations under such conditions?
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF has been operating in Somalia without interruption since 1972. And the group recently scored a major victory, by conducting a successful airlift into the town of Baidoa, in Lower Shabelle - an al-Shabab stronghold hit hard by famine.
The shipment contained five tons of supplies, including clean water equipment, and food and medicine to treat malnutrition.
Such a large shipment could not have happened without the approval of al-Shabab. UNICEF chief of communications for Africa services, Shantha Bloemen, said they had to work with the group as a matter of principle.
“So yes, there was dialogue with local authorities, and obviously they include members of al-Shabab," said Shantha Bloemen. "But the bottom line is that we succeeded in getting those supplies in. Our staff were able to go to the airport and secure the materials and get it out to the people that need it.”
Ban on airlifts lifted
Al-Shabab recently lifted a ban on airlifts. The move will allow organizations that have relied mainly on ground transportation to send more supplies more quickly, at a time when it is needed most.
UNICEF is focusing on treating acute malnutrition in children, which has increased to rates around 50 percent in some parts of the region. But the agency has remained cautious, and cannot say that airlifts will continue unabated.
“I think we are just testing the waters as we go, and obviously we believe strongly that we have to do whatever we can to meet the kids' needs," said Bloemen. "So, we are looking at every avenue at the moment, at how we get more support in, obviously, without compromising our ability to operate.”
Once aid organizations like UNICEF get their materials on the ground, they rely on local, Somali partners to distribute food or medicine or other supplies.
Mohamed Omar works with the Peace and Environmental Development Concern Organization (PEDCO) in the Bakool region.
"Most local humanitarian aid agencies use local residents to operate," he said. "We tell al-Shabab this is what we want to do in a certain area. If you contact them directly they will help you with the facilitation, but sometimes they warn you from receiving aid from certain aid organizations. There are some aid organization they do not want, like the U.N. Development Program, and others which were banned.”
He says the aid agencies use local residents. They tell al-Shabab what they want to do, and where, and the group helps with facilitating the delivery. But, sometimes they will also warn you about receiving aid from certain organizations, like the U.N. Development Program, and others that are banned.
While Omar was willing to speak about working with the militant group, other aid workers in the area would not discuss their relationship, fearing it could compromise their work.
International Crisis Group Somalia expert Rashid Abdi says al-Shabab's decision to allow aid does not represent an ideological shift.
“I think what has happened is that the situation has become so grave and so dire that al-Shabab had no other choice but to basically allow in aid agencies, simply because they had no means to provide sustenance for the people," said Abdi.
Abdi said al-Shabab has received a lot of pressure from clan leaders and local communities who have blamed the group for the food crisis.
But until a strong central government can regain control of south-central Somalia, aid groups will still have to go through al-Shabab. And there is no guarantee they will not go back to hijacking supplies.
With 3.7 million people affected by the crisis, nearly half the Somali population, many organizations believe they have no choice but to risk working with al-Shabab.