Soldiers of the Somali National Army during the third day of its joint offensive with the African Union Mission in Somalia to capture territories held by the al-Shabab. The country is one of the most dangerous places for aid workers due to deadly attacks to humanitarians by this group. Photo by: Stuart Price / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Aid agencies face difficult decisions every day in humanitarian crises. But few compare to the impossible choice that aid agencies had to make in Somalia at the height of the 2011 famine that claimed more than 250,000 lives: pay off al-Shabab, a listed “terrorist” organization, or let people die.

Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. One of the most formidable obstacles to reaching people in need of assistance has indeed been al-Shabab — an armed group that has carried out deadly attacks on civilians and aid workers, including the Westgate mall attack in Kenya earlier this year. It is a force to be reckoned with, having once controlled nearly all of southern and central Somalia.

Al-Shabab sees itself not just in opposition to the Somali government, but as a “government in waiting.” Although it may seem paradoxical, it has a Humanitarian Coordination Office (HCO), responsible for monitoring, regulating, registering and “taxing” aid agencies operating in al-Shabab territory. This highly elaborate system has allowed the group to carry out systematic intimidation and taxation, coopting aid to their benefit. Aid organizations were regularly faced with a gruesome ethical dilemma; faced with nearly 750,000 people at threat of starvation during the famine, some agencies gave into al-Shabab demands for payments as high as $10,000.

Al-Shabab’s desire to capitalize on humanitarian aid in its territory has at times clashed with its deeply entrenched suspicion of Western aid agencies, which it sees as fronts for Western intelligence services. As one al-Shabab official put it: “Whether they call themselves humanitarian or not, we know who they are: they are the civilian face of the infidel forces.” Many organizations, including the World Food Program and UNICEF, have been expelled from al-Shabab territory following allegations of “espionage,” “illicit activities” and “misconduct.”

Some aid agencies tried to negotiate with al-Shabab on a regular, structured basis, and in gaining its acceptance, succeeded in avoiding some of the group’s most unreasonable demands. But few agencies carried out thorough engagement with al-Shabab or spoke out about these payments for fear of falling foul of counterterrorism laws and measures, such as those passed in the United States and the United Kingdom, which prohibit the provision of “material support” to al-Shabab. In essence, the strength of these counterterrorism laws created a culture of silence around engagement with al-Shabab as not many agencies welcomed the possibility of potentially facing criminal prosecution for their efforts to provide aid in Somalia. Fearing exposure, aid agencies accepted these demands, instead of uniting to create the leverage to oppose al-Shabab’s demands.

Moreover, for many aid agencies, their donors were those very governments that had passed counterterrorism legislation that could lead to relief groups facing criminal prosecution for engaging with al-Shabab. As images of starving Somali children filled the international media, donors provided increased funding to help those in need, without any open acknowledgement of the compromises, and potentially “criminal” actions, they would be compelled to make.

Now, nearly two years after the famine, al-Shabab has lost large swathes of territory. However, it is no less of a threat than it was at the height of its power — at least to aid agencies. The group has not disappeared. Fighters have melted back into the population, waiting to be mobilized: suffering military losses is not the same as defeat. Al-Shabab’s attack on the U.N. Development Program office earlier this year serves as a stark warning for aid agencies seeking to capitalize on the militant group’s seeming lack of presence. As one aid worker in Somalia noted, “In former Al-Shabaab areas the Somali National Government is nominally in power but Al-Shabaab still has its powers of infiltration. They know everything: who’s there, who’s doing what and so on … They have stated that even if they have left, the rules will be the same.”

This is not an issue that will simply go away, nor is it unique to Somalia. Humanitarian agencies confront similar challenges in Syria, in Pakistan, in the Central African Republic — in the many conflicts around the world today. For the sake of the millions in need of humanitarian aid and those on the front lines delivering it, we must find a better way of negotiating with armed groups. Governments must take a long, hard look at counterterrorism laws and measures: supposedly created to help fight terrorism, is it acceptable that they made it more difficult for aid agencies to stand up against “terrorists” in order to support people under their control?

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Overseas Development Institute. Read the original article.

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