International policies and politics in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia
by Ken Menkhaus, Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, North Carolina, USA October 2008

Aid workers and analysts seeking to explain Somalia’s current humanitarian disaster are understandably preoccupied with the immediate and obvious – the combination of factors which has placed 2.5 million Somalis in urgent need of emergency relief. These include the displacement of between 500,000 and 700,000 civilians, caused by the heavy-handed Ethiopian military occupation; predatory attacks and crime by the Transitional Federal Government’s uncontrolled security forces; assassinations of civic leaders by an increasingly decentralised and violent jihadist movement; economic paralysis and hyperinflation; severe local drought; global spikes in food and fuel prices; and a highly dangerous, non-permissive environment for national and international aid workers.

These are, collectively, a perfectly adequate set of explanations for what has gone wrong in Somalia in 2007 and 2008. But other factors, some of them at play for three decades or more, are also important in explaining why Somalia has been bedevilled by such persistent humanitarian crises and such high rates of failure and frustration among relief agencies. Of special importance are the international political interests shaping external responses to Somalia’s humanitarian crises, and the particular international policies meant to cope with Somalia’s problems.

Strategic interests and policies

For most of its existence as an independent state, Somalia been perceived as strategically important by major powers. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the West vied for influence in the Horn of Africa. More recently, America’s preoccupation with counter-terrorism has again made the country a top strategic priority.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Somalia’s strategic importance had enormous repercussions for humanitarian aid operations. High levels of economic and military aid, first from the communist bloc and then from the West, produced a bloated and unsustainable central government unresponsive to its own people. Corruption, gross violations of human rights and government manipulation of humanitarian relief were routinely tolerated by donors; foreign aid workers who dared complain about the diversion and misuse of aid were thrown out of the country. Meanwhile, Siyad Barre’s regime manipulated humanitarian crises to enrich itself and advance its own narrow interests, most egregiously following the Ogaden war in Ethiopia in the late 1970s, when Ethiopian refugee numbers were grossly inflated, aid intended for refugees was diverted and refugee camps were used as sites to recruit, train and encamp security forces. According to a subsequent US Congressional study, levels of aid diversion were the worst in the history of USAID. Only in 1988, in the waning days of the Cold War, was Western aid to the Barre regime made conditional on improvements in human rights.

The unhappy experiences of humanitarian and development assistance during the Cold War are germane today. Thanks to the dominance of US-led counter-terrorism policies, humanitarian action is once again subordinated to a geostrategic imperative. Elements within the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) are mirroring much of the abusive behaviour of the Barre regime – creating humanitarian crises and then exploiting the victims, manipulating humanitarian agencies and exploiting the security preoccupations of the West in order to silence critics. Donor agencies are again complicit in their silence, and in some cases are aiding and abetting security forces responsible for much of the humanitarian emergency. In sum, Somalia has long been an ‘accountability-free zone’, with foreign aid intended to advance strategic rather than developmental or humanitarian aims.

Links with non-state actors

The complete and prolonged collapse of the Somali state since 1991 has given rise to a plethora of non-state actors. Militia leaders, self-declared governors and mayors, clan elders, religious clerics, businesspeople and civic leaders all vie for authority, either locally or nationally. Faced with this confusing and contested political landscape, external actors have had to choose who to recognise as a legitimate authority. The results have been inconsistent and contradictory.

Problems of recognition began with the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) in 1993, when US and UN indecision over who constituted a genuine Somali leader contributed to the tensions that culminated in the four-month war between General Farah Aideed’s militia and UN forces. Ever since, external actors have swung wildly back and forth between recognising and working with militia leaders, factional leaders, clan elders and civic leaders. The international community has also vacillated between a focus on national leadership and regional or local ‘building–blocks’. This issue has been most pronounced when peace conferences have been convened. In each case, the question of representation has either undermined or reinforced the standing of different political groups.

The tendency to recognise militia leaders has arguably deepened the country’s problem of warlordism. But complaints have also been raised that donors and aid agencies have undermined efforts to revive governmental authority by opting to work directly with local NGOs. These competing arguments, which frame much of the discussion about what aid agencies should and should not be doing in Somalia today, are remarkably similar to debates in 1993, when UNOSOM began establishing district councils.

External resources and conflict

Because recognition by external players has the potential to yield significant dividends for local actors, power struggles in Somalia have been exceptionally fierce and often fatal. This has been most obvious in national politics, where the political elite devotes nearly all of its energies to attracting and diverting foreign aid, rather than actually governing. Millions of dollars can be at stake for top leaders and their supporters. Unsurprisingly, factional fighting over control of the country’s succession of transitional governments has been a constant feature since 1991. It is not the prospect of foreign aid per se that generates conflict in Somalia, but rather the prospect of foreign aid with so little accountability over how it is spent. Clashes can occur at the local level as well, where the principal prize is usually the resources of aid agencies. External political and humanitarian actors are, in other words, part of the fabric of conflict, thanks to the resources they introduce into the country.


The current humanitarian and political crisis in Somalia has raised the question of conditionality of aid, an issue that has long hovered over international policy towards Somalia. Should non-emergency assistance be made contingent on the ability of local or national authorities to meet certain minimal standards of comportment and performance? Since 1995, the international community has imposed formal conditions on assistance to Somalia. These have changed over time, and can have a major impact in shaping local politics and conflicts. As with other policies, inconsistency has been an enduring problem. An even more difficult problem has been the fact that, in the absence of a functional central government, these conditions have been placed on non-state actors with variable levels of capacity and will to control the territory they claim to govern.

The first set of conditions was enshrined in the Somali Aid Coordination Body (SACB)’s 1995 ‘Code of Conduct’, which committed local authorities to ensuring the security of aid agencies as a precondition for development assistance. The Code of Conduct, while an entirely understandable response to the growing insecurity aid workers were facing, also produced unintended consequences. Local communities, intent on demonstrating their commitment to the security of aid agencies, imposed sharia sentences on offenders, causing the SACB to scramble to add an addendum to the Code saying that security had to be provided in a way that respected human rights. The Code also inadvertently invited spoilers to create security problems in rival communities in order to deprive them of an aid agency presence, typically the main source of employment in a town. But the main shortcoming of the Code of Conduct was that it referred only to the protection of foreigners and national staff in aid agencies. No conditions applied to the security of residents under the control of a local authority.

As development assistance in the late 1990s shifted towards a greater emphasis on promoting good governance and state-building, a different kind of conditionality rose to prominence – one based on the notion of ‘performance legitimacy’. Donors began to insist that authorities claiming to control a town or region actually showed evidence of administering that area as a condition for recognition and assistance. This marked a major improvement over the days when warlords could assert a claim of authority over a town while either ignoring it or preying upon it. The performance legitimacy criterion was most in evidence with the declaration of the Transitional National Government (TNG) in 2000. Most major donors took a ‘wait and see’ approach, insisting that the TNG demonstrate some actual administration over the capital before aid was earmarked for it.

The principle of conditionality was largely dropped with the establishment of the TFG in late 2004. In fact, external donors have been surprisingly detached from questions of accountability and performance with regard to the TFG, even in the face of startling problems – systematic corruption and diversion of foreign aid and customs revenues, TFG security forces which have become a law unto themselves, allegations of very serious human rights abuses, a complete lack of progress in the political transition and the absence of an even minimally functional civil service. The parallel between the international community’s unconditional support for the TFG and its reluctance to impose conditions on the Barre regime in the 1980s is striking, but unsurprising given the fact that, in both cases, powerful strategic imperatives were at stake.

Neutrality and ‘jointness’

A final external policy issue which has had considerable impact on emergency response in Somalia has been the loss of neutral humanitarian space. Here we see a dramatic difference between the international relief operations of 1991–92 and those of today. Whereas in 1991–92 relief agencies were able to move freely throughout the war and famine zone and were generally not targeted by warring factions, aid agencies today find themselves attacked by both sides. Over a third of all humanitarian casualties worldwide in the first eight months of 2008 took place in Somalia. Hardliners in the TFG accuse aid agencies and their staff of providing support to the insurgents and terrorists, have in some instances incited crowds to loot relief convoys and have impeded the flow of relief aid using both bureaucratic ploys and the TFG security forces. At the same time, jihadists in Mogadishu are targeting staff of NGOs and UN agencies with links to the West. This development is linked to the US decision to designate the jihadist group shabaab as a terrorist organisation, and the US air attack in May 2008 which killed shabaableader Aden Hashi Ayro.

Efforts by humanitarian agencies to create and maintain a neutral space in which to conduct relief operations have been complicated by the fact that donor states and the UN Political Office insist that all development work should support efforts to strengthen the capacity and legitimacy of the TFG. In theory, there is nothing objectionable about attempts to improve jointness of effort towards a common political solution in Somalia. In practice, however, this has had considerable costs. Because the TFG is a party to the war, and because UN specialised agencies have been required to provide direct support to the TFG, insurgents surmise that Western NGOs and the UN are not neutral parties, making aid agency personnel targets of radical elements of the insurgency. This has created significant tension between the humanitarian/development community and the diplomatic corps in Nairobi. The former want neutrality and distance from the political enterprise of strengthening the TFG, while the latter insist on unity of effort in support of it.


This brief survey of some of the external strategies and interventions that have helped to shape Somalia’s prolonged humanitarian crisis leads to two main conclusions. First, the Somali crisis is increasingly driven by the interests and policies of foreign actors. In the latter half of the 1990s, when Somalia was generally given scant attention by the international community, one could make the case that the ongoing crises in the country were mainly the product of internal factors – clannism, spoilers and myopic leadership. These internal constraints may still be present, but they are overshadowed by the impact that external factors now have in Somalia. At least for the time being, Somalis have less control over their political fate than at any time in the past 20 years.

Second, the enhanced impact of external interests and policies in Somalia has become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. External policies have generally served to exacerbate and complicate the Somali crisis, even when intended to alleviate it. This is so in part because the political context in Somalia is so complex that unintended consequences are the norm, not the exception; in part because foreign actors lack basic knowledge of Somali political and conflict dynamics, and so make avoidable errors; and in part because the strategic interests of regional neighbours and global powers trump all other policy considerations, undermining efforts to promote peace and accountable governance.

Ken Menkhaus is Professor of Political Science at Davidson College, North Carolina, USA. His email address is: