UK undermines its own Somalia aid with a political agenda

© Frederic Courbet / PanosBy Marc DuBois,  executive director of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) UK. 

This article first appeared on the Alertnet website here.

In Somalia, when the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) plane circles a runway to assess it for landing, we are immediately accused of gathering intelligence. When our staff uses mobile phones, they fear being labelled spies.  

In recent years, numerous aid agencies have been shut down by warring parties, usually without justification but routinely with the accusation of having an agenda other than humanitarian.  

The 650,000 people MSF treated in its clinics in 2009 is insignificant compared to the overall need of the country and we constantly strive to do more. But in order to do so, it is paramount that we are understood as having no mixed agenda, but rather a singular purpose: the provision of immediate, life-saving assistance on the basis of the needs of the  Somali people, disconnected from any foreign policy and security objectives.

Certain elements of the results of the British Department for International Development (DFID) aid reviews, released last week, have been precipitated by earlier announcements. Thirty percent of DFID's budget was already dedicated to fragile and conflict-affected states by the Strategic Defence and Security Review, unveiled last October.  

That Somalia would feature prominently among those states was clear from the tripling of the UK aid effort previously announced. For a country suffering drought, floods and an ongoing conflict which has ravaged the lives of millions, leaving half the country in urgent need of life-saving humanitarian aid, the mobilisation of increased levels of assistance is essential.   

However when that assistance is underpinned by UK national security interests, the result is limiting and dangerous for the millions in need of assistance and for those who risk their lives to deliver it.

On the grounds that "aid for Somalia is aid for Britain too", London justifies the uplift in aid to the country in an attempt to counterbalance the growing threats of piracy, migration and terrorism. That aid effort includes an increase in emergency humanitarian assistance such as nutrition and  healthcare - in other words immediate, life-saving activities.

DANGEROUS MIX

Presumably this assistance is to be provided, on  the  basis  of  need, to  the  millions of civilians displaced from  their homes, caught in the crossfire or worse, targeted, who have no access to adequate shelter, water, sanitation or healthcare across Somalia.  

But when humanitarian assistance of this nature is presented as beneficial to Britain's national security, one's ability to reach those most in need is fundamentally undermined.  

The issue is how the aid is delivered and how it is perceived. Humanitarian aid with a political agenda is a contradiction in terms.

It places Somali people in the difficult situation of receiving aid from those directly, or indirectly, involved in the conflict - parties with an agenda based on something other than people's needs.

It fuels suspicions militants harbour about the intentions of humanitarian staff - namely that the humanitarian effort is conducted to benefit the interests of Western governments, considered enemies by the militants - increasing the risk of people being wrongly targeted.

It is for these reasons that MSF is strictly independent, takes no funding from governments for our programmes in Somalia, and provides life-saving services based on medical need alone. Even then, it is challenging and often dangerous.

U.N. NOT NEUTRAL

DFID's decision to channel the increased emergency aid package to Somalia - £10.5 million - through the United Nations illustrates this narrative of a politicised, humanitarian aid effort.

The U.N. in Somalia is far from neutral as it is heavily aligned to one side of the conflict, thereby compromising its ability to safeguard independent, humanitarian assistance in the face of the country's politics.

The U.N. Resident Coordinator for Somalia wears the U.N.'s political as well as humanitarian hats - a sign for many in Somalia that humanitarian assistance acts in service to the U.N.'s political aims. His recently announced intentions to further integrate these two forms of U.N. action at a 'strategic' level cast yet more doubt on the purpose of humanitarian aid in the Horn of Africa nation. ?  ?The challenges of politicised aid are not unique to Somalia. In other theatres of war, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the linking of aid with political and security objectives presents a similar challenge to the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance to those caught in the crossfire.

MSF is an independent international medical humanitarian organisation, providing healthcare free of charge in more than 60 countries regardless of religious, ethnic, political or clan affiliation. MSF has provided lifesaving medical care to people in Somalia since 1992 and today continues to assist thousands throughout the country, thanks to our committed Somali staff. MSF does not accept any government funding for its projects in Somalia, relying solely on donations from individuals throughout the world.