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Aid delivery remains a central obstacle in Somalia's famine

Somalia specialist Ken Menkhaus told the Enough Project that the international community needs to pressure Al Shabab and the Somali government to open up aid delivery routes.

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Despite the long lead-time the international community had to prepare for famine this time around, and years of experience providing relief in this part of the world, assistance fails to reach those who need it most because of blockages and diversions by both the militant Al Shabab group and its sworn enemy, Somalia’s UN-backed Transitional Federal Government, or TFG. As a result, the bulk of the assistance can only get as close as the Kenyan border region, a walk of several days. Writes Menkhaus:

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This is not a famine relief strategy – it is a macabre game of “Survivor,” rewarding those lucky and strong enough to straggle across the border with a prize of shelter, food rations, and the prospect of being warehoused in a refugee camp for the next 20 years.

So what Menkhaus proposes is a “diplomatic surge” leveled simultaneously at the Shabab and the TFG to open routes for aid delivery. It must be clear to both sides that anyone found diverting or withholding aid from civilians will be held accountable. Condemnation of Shabab’s tactics is a given, but Menkhaus advocates taking a similarly hard line with the TFG.

The time frame for organizing a diplomatic surge is short, and the strongest public pressure must come from a range of Islamic actors, including some newly liberated societies in the Middle East who may still be too preoccupied internally to engage beyond their borders. But the United States has a key coordinating role to play. President Obama must personally get involved, Menkhaus argues, to jump start the initiative.

The alternatives – doing nothing beyond the typical, unsatisfactory relief effort or enabling a regional military operation to develop – are deeply unappealing, especially when diplomatic options still exist.

The 2011 Somalia famine risks spurring the post-mortem regret of other humanitarian catastrophes – Rwanda, Darfur – where hundreds of thousands of victims fell prey to the motives of ideologically driven, self-interested, and powerful in their countries. Menkhaus asks: “Will the same be true for the Obama administration and other world leaders when they look back on the 2011 Somalia famine and ask: Was that the best we could do?”

Laura Heaton blogs for the Enough Project at Enough Said.

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