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Banning NGOs in Somalia, or, Farmers Hate Food Aid
March 14, 2014
Strange story from Somalia, where Al Jazeera reporter Hamza Mohamed finds many people very happy that the anti-western fanatics of al-Shabab expelled all NGOs and ended food aid:
In November 2011, in a much-criticised move, al-Shabab banned foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from areas it controlled, accusing some of the organisations of “illicit activities and misconduct”.
“We want our people to be free of NGOs and foreign hands. We want them to depend on each other and to stand free of outsiders,” Sheikh Abu Abdullah, the al-Shabab governor of Lower Shabelle province, told Al Jazeera.
Lower Shabelle is Somalia’s breadbasket. During the famine of 2011, which killed more than 250,000 people, the province was hit hard. Many people moved to camps for internally displaced persons in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. On the other side of the town is the farm of Abdi Haji Qarawi, a 47-year-old who is the father of 18 children. On one side of his 17-hectare sesame farm stand triangular heaps of sesame drying in the scorching mid-afternoon sun.
Before the banning of NGOs and the construction of the town’s canals, Qarawi says he was a “beggar”. “Every last week of the month we used to go to the NGOs’ office to ask for food. Sometime they will tell us there was no food. It was a shameful life.” Two years after deciding to return to farming, Qarawi is a happy man. “All my children go to school. I can afford to send them to study and I have surplus cash,” he said with a smile.
Obviously the farmers are happy about this, since for them food aid amounted to unfair competition. The UN says that main reason things are better in Somalia than in 2011 is that there has been a lot more rain:
But farmers here see the turn of their fortunes differently. The area’s newfound prosperity “is because of the NGO ban”, said Mohamed Sheikh Abdi, the chairman of the Bulo Mareer farmers union. “They always brought food to the town weeks before the harvest… They bought their food from abroad and never bought from us local farmers. They killed every incentive to farm. We were hostage to the NGOs.”
In a traditional peasant society, what happens in years of crop failure is that prices for food soar. Farmers can sometimes do quite well out of this, since whatever little they have to sell is worth a lot more. The main victims are poor townspeople and laborers who don’t have crops of their own — they are the ones in danger of starving. Now bring in a few thousand tons of UN rice, and what happens? Laborers and townspeople are happy, because they can get enough to eat, but farmers find that their paltry crops are not worth that much more, so they are worse off even if not exactly starving. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether you have crops to sell.
I was not surprised that al-Shabab is opposed to food aid. Mohammed Morsi, when he was Egypt’s President, also tried limit food imports, which suggested to me that Islamic fundamentalists instinctively take the side of the farmers. Like conservatives in some other places, they admire the self-reliance and toughness of farmers and want to protect them from international agribusiness. Maybe this will work, and with protection and encouragement Somalia can become food independent. But maybe not.
The al-Jazeera story focuses on new canals built by a-Shabab that seem to be making some farmers rich. This may or may not be a good thing, depending; almost all of the world’s fresh water gets used by somebody, after all, and the canals that are such a boon to farmers in this district may cause rivers to dry up somewhere else. Hard to know without more detail.