A Turkan woman from Kenya holds out an empty pot. Photo by: Giro555 / CC BY-SA

The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

“I hate these words,” Egyptian blogger and democracy activist Dalia Ziada told Devex last week.

We’ve all heard them. They’ve guided foreign policy – think Iraq under U.S. President Bill Clinton and Hosni Mubarak under, well, countless administrations.

How should the development community interact with those accused of human rights violations? Aid officials may have little say in the case of overwhelming political and security concerns. But, what happens in the case of humanitarian disasters?

Look at the Horn of Africa for some answers.

There, al-Shabab initially banned foreign aid groups from entering Somali regions under its control. As the food and refugee crisis widens, some within the militant groups appear willing to compromise. The Obama administration, too, has eased restrictions on the delivery of U.S.-funded aid to the region amid calls from aid agencies for unimpeded and unconditional access.

“It’s a reality we’ll have to talk with them if we want to pull through this situation,” Intersos Secretary General Antonio Sergi said last week, referring to al-Shabab. “In my opinion, it is a mistake to consider them people impossible to open a dialogue with.”

Sergio spoke with Devex on the fringes of the food emergency meeting in Rome on July 25, cautioning against what he called “the error we made in 2006 – refusing the dialogue with the Islamic courts, then opening it, but too late.”

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In the coming days, we’ll publish an extensive interview with a U.N. official at the heart of the crisis. It illustrates why swift solutions to the aid impasse are needed now. The humanitarian emergency is far from over, Jean Alexander Scaglia told us; it may continue for at least six months – longer without proper rain.

Scaglia serves as the Food and Agricultural Organization’s senior emergency officer in the Horn of Africa. In our conversation, he detailed the challenges facing aid groups on the ground, including al-Shabab. And he offered his thoughts on a series of burning questions, including: Was this crisis man-made? What can be done to avoid similar disasters in the future? And, how confident can we be in our ability to prevent fraud, waste and abuse in an environment where access restrictions increase the need for new partnerships with less-than-optimal oversight?

Perhaps the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. In the Horn of Africa, right now, too many unknowns remain.

Read last week’s Development Buzz.

About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.