How the Culture of Aid Gave Us the Tragedy of Somalia

Originally published in the Village Voice, 1993

by Michael Maren

The problem started with the camel guts spilling from the abattoir north of Mogadishu. As the butchers shoveled loads of entrails off the concrete slaughter blocks into the Indian Ocean, sharks swarmed in for the feast. And when theyd eaten the food they turned south along the coast to an area of Mog known as the Lido where the UN beach club and the British-American club attracted aid workers and legions of enterprising young Somalis who hustled them on the beaches.

After the first Somali kid bled to death in the sand after having his leg torn off the expats retreated from the beach to their verandahs where they drank beer and whisky and tried to spot shark fins in the water. After the second Somali kid was eaten, someone put a sign on the bulletin board suggesting that maybe it was time to build a swimming pool. None of the aid workers took the pool suggestion seriously, though. Most of them wouldnt be there very long three months, six months , a year tops. It was easier and more fun to go looking for new beaches, virgin beaches south of the problem. So they set off in convoys, blazing trails across the sand in their red and green and blue Japanese-made 4-wheel drives emblazoned with the logos of CARE, UNICEF, World Vision, and Save The Children. They motored over the dunes to wide open stretches of beach getting the feeling at the top of every new hill that no one had ever been there before. And when they arrived at quiet little lagoons they spread their blankets, unpacked their picnic lunches, tossed their Frisbees and jumped into the water.

This was Somalia 1981, and the West was moving in: economic advisors, consultants, diplomats, United Nations personnel, and military advisors. But the largest contingent by far were the relief workers, mostly young and inexperienced, assuming they could help, and looking for African adventure. Somalia provided opportunity for both. Thousands of refugees from the Ogaden, ethnic Somalis, were pouring over the border from Ethiopia to avoid fighting and famine. They arrived tired and hungry and in need of medical care. The young volunteers gave it to them.

At the same time, Western diplomats were helping Somalia change its affiliation from a Soviet client state to a U.S. client state. They were prodding and advising the government of Somalias dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre, on how to privatize the economy hed just spent a decade socializing. And they were negotiating for the rights to station U.S. forces at an abandoned Soviet military base at Berbera on the Red Sea.

Most of the aid workers paid little attention to the geopolitical maneuvering in the capital. They were there to care for the victims, to feed the hungry, give them medicine.

After several months many of these carefree young people became haunted with the notion that something else was going on. Some began to say that the suffering of people was caused by the aid, and they began to suspect that maybe things wouldve worked out better for the refugees if the relief agencies had never shown up in the first place.

It slowly became apparent there was no way to separate what the uniformed men were doing in Mogadishu from the task of feeding the crying children in the camps. Many of the young aid workers finally left Somalia with the fear that the refugee relief effort on 1981 had set the table for an even bigger disaster down the road. They were right. The disaster came ten years later.

I arrived in Somalia early in 1981 as part of this migration of aid workers. Many of us had come straight from college or from Thailand, working with refugees from Cambodia. Id just spent four years in Kenya, two as a Peace Corps teacher and two years running food-for-work and famine-relief projects in Kenyas northern deserts for Catholic Relief Services. My new employer was the U.S. Agency for International Development the major leagues in the relief business, a reward for a job well done.

I was not naive. I'd seen thousands of people starve to death in Kenya, mostly members of the Turkana ethnic group, along with Somalis. Id seen Kenyan officials exploit the starving by offering to trade small amounts of donated relief food for the hides of their animals, the last remaining things of value they owned. And Id watched the government of Kenya try to cover up the entire famine out of fear that bad publicity would hurt the tourist business.

Ultimately it dawned on me that the suit-wearing, tea-sipping, europhile politicians in Nairobi didnt really give a shit about the primitive nomadic, people in the north. The nomads were an embarrassment. Anything primitive was an embarrassment and a nuisance.

All of this experience prepared me well for Somalia, but not for the scale of the deception I was about to encounter.

I was hired as a food monitor. My job was to make sure that the food sent from the docks of Mogadishu reached the refugees in my region and to find out why it wasnt reaching them. That region was Hiran district, a large expanse of desert to the north of Mogadishu. 19 refugee camps had been established along the banks of the Shebele river, which wound through the district, draining the Ethiopian highlands hundreds of miles away. I set up operations in the town of Beledweyne (sounds like smell it Duane) on the Ethiopian border.

The job didnt require a lot of detective work. On my first few days in the region I saw military vehicles leaving refugee camps loaded down with bags of food. I saw merchants warehouses filled with bags bearing the USAID handshake logo and the words Donated by the people of the United States of America, Not For Sale. Over the next few days I saw military warehouses packed to the ceilings with refugee food and convoys of military trucks heading toward the Ethiopian border, also packed with food.

After checking ledgers at refugee camps I figured that most of the relief food being sent to the region probably about two-thirds was being stolen. Some disappeared from the docks in Mog. Some disappeared from the trucks along the way to the camps. Sometimes entire trucks would leave the port and vanish forever. Most if it, it seemed, disappeared from the camps, sold by camp commanders, who were usually Somali military men, or were just taken by the soldiers, or by the guerrillas who were members of the Western Somalia Liberation Front (WSLF). Along with the food, the WSLF also raided the camps for able-bodied young men, unwilling conscripts for a murky guerrilla war across the Ethiopian border in the Ogaden desert.

The Five-Pointed Star

The maps hanging on the walls of government offices told the tale of Greater Somalia. There are no borders where were used to seeing borders, just uninterrupted stretches of brown and green reaching across through central Kenya, over into Djibouti and across the Ogaden into the Ethiopian highlands, the area that Somali officials called Western Somalia. These were the lands inhabited by ethnic Somalis, one people divided by old colonial lines.

The Somalis who live in these three other countries are represented by three of the points of the five-pointed star on the Somali flag. The other two points represent the regions of the former Italian Trust Territory of Somalia, that is, southern Somalia, and the former British Somaliland Protectorate, the northern region around Hargeisa.

The idea of uniting the five Somali groups has long been at the root of Somali nationalism. The former British region became independent on June 26, 1960. The Italian region achieved its independence five days later, and the two joined to form one country.

In 1963, as Kenya verged on independence from Britain, Somali Nationalists looked to the southwest to the part of Kenya known as The Northern Frontier District (NFD). It was more than 60 percent Somali and predominantly Muslim. Its inhabitants where overwhelmingly in favor of unification with the Somali state. Their wishes were ignored in favor of those of Kenyan nationalists who opposed an partition of the colony. When Kenya became independent in December, 1963, Somalis in the NFD began a long quite futile war against the new government. The Somalis called them freedom fighters and the Kenyan called them shifta, a term applied to bandits and cattle thieves.

To this day, Kenyas Northeastern Province is a dangerous place to travel. Shifta still attack convoys and raid towns on occasion. And both the Kenyans and the Somalis are right: the shifta are usually bandits who call themselves freedom fighters, and occasionally freedom fighters who behave like bandits. The net result is that chaos in Somalia suits Kenya just fine.

The situation in the Ogaden, however, proved much more explosive. For centuries Amharic Emperors had, through intimidation and agreements, controlled the Muslim lowlands of the Ogaden.

As in Kenya, the freedom fight sputtered along while the Somali military had little chance of any victory against the superior American-trained Ethiopian army under Emperor Haile Selassie.

In 1967, the elected Somali government of Prime Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Egal began a process of making peace with the nations that stood in the way of the pan-Somali dream. Egal realized that the dream was fruitless, that all of Africa confronted with secessionist minorities had lined up against Somalia. Though Egals peace efforts werent appreciated by Somalis, his coalition won the fraud-laced 1969 election. In the process of assuring his own power, Egal had angered the military, which overthrew him in October 1969. The coup leader, Major General Mohammed Siad Barre, ascended to the leadership of the country.

After the coup, Barre announced that his government, led by the Supreme Revolutionary Council, would pursue the path of scientific socialism. A loose military alliance with the Soviet Union became more intense, and Barre began a massive military buildup with armored units, MiG-21 fighter -bombers and Ilyushin bombers. Thousands of military advisors began to train the 20,000-man Somali army.

The Ethiopians and Kenyans, with reason to be scared turned to their American allies.

All of this might have turned into a typical Third World Cold War arms race had it not been for the 1974 coup in Ethiopia that booted Haile Selassie from the imperial palace and installed a socialist government. The Soviets, seeing that Ethiopia was probably the most valuable piece of real estate in Africa did a clean sweep on regional foreign policy. They stopped backing Eritrean and Tigrean rebels fight against the Ethiopian government and the began to arm the new military junta, the Dergue, in Ethiopia while attempting to maintain their relationship with Somalia.

In 1977, however, the Soviets were forced to choose sides. A bloody internal power struggle in Ethiopia had left the regime vulnerable. Barre sensed his opening. The Soviet military build-up in Ethiopia hadnt gotten very far, and his own army was at primed and ready. In July, 1977, he invaded the Ogaden, rapidly capturing the region and driving the Ethiopians back into the hills. Elated Somalis decreed Barre the savior of the Somali nation. He was at the peak of his popularity.

What followed in Ethiopia was Jimmy Carter's worst nightmare, and changed the direction of U.S. military policy. Midway through the war the Russians, who had signed an "eternal" friendship treaty with Somalia in 1975, switched sides, airlifting 18,000 Cuban troops and $2 billion worth of arms to the Ethiopians. Barre turned to the Americans. The Carter Administration promised him weapons but then, at the height of the fighting, decided to withhold them from both sides. By then it was too late for Somalia. By March 1978 the Somalis were run out of the Ogaden.

Shocked by the lightening Soviet response to the military and diplomatic crisis on the horn, U.S. military strategists started feeling paranoid about our ability to wage a conventional war, and the idea of a Rapid Deployment Force took hold. The Americans convinced themselves that the abandoned Soviet naval base at Berbera was like a prize worth having.

The Heritage Foundation, soon to gain influence in the Reagan Administration spelled out the evolving mood concerning the Horn of Africa:

"The Soviet Military intervention in the Horn of Africa is the centerpiece of two new foreign policy initiatives: one in the Middle East and the other in Africa. The intermediate-range targets are Saudi Arabia, the worlds largest producer of petroleum, and Kenya, the last pro-Western state from the Cape to the Horn. "

And by the time U.S. hostages were seized in Iran and the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. was scrambling to look tough. In early 1981, the incoming Reagan Administration dispatched Henry Kissinger to Mogadishu, where he assured Siad Barre that America was behind him. "It is not tolerable that the Soviet Union and its proxy forces engage in expansion all over Africa and in the Middle East without opposition," Kissinger said in Cairo after a day with Barre in Somalia.

From Washington, the barren wastes of Somalia suddenly looked like downtown Berlin.

Watching the Marines roll through Somalia today its hard to imagine what form of desperation might have caused the U.S. feel that this place was once a key to its global defense strategy. What Cold War delirium caused the U.S. to feel that it had to appease Siad Barre and quietly abet his military fantasies?

By 1979, the gloss had worn off the Somali victory in the Ogaden. Barre was becoming increasingly unpopular, and his secret police, the National Security Service (NSS) was stepping up its campaign of intimidation against his enemies. Previously, Somali governments had tried to maintain a broad base of representation from various clans. But as Barre began to feel less and less secure he started close the circle, increasingly employing his own clansmen and his own relatives in positions of power.

At the same time, the WSLF maintained a low level war against the Ethiopians in the Ogaden. The attacks drew reprisals, and increasingly the Somali nomads from the region found themselves caught in the middle. Some of them sought safety over the border in Somalia. Barre began to pressure his Western allies for refugee relief, and they responded. There were bigger stakes here in Somalia than a few million dollars in relief assistance. Barre claimed a half a million refugees, then a million and soon a million and a half. Journalists took pictures of the sick and the hungry, and the relief agencies arrived on the scene with the food. And the food was being stolen.

Despite all of the disappearing food in Somalia, no one was starving to death in the refugee camps. To be sure, a lot of people were dying. They were dying from malaria, measles, dysentery, diphtheria and pneumonia . They were getting sick with river blindness. But enough food was coming into the camps to keep them fed. The obvious conclusion was that more food than necessary was coming into the country.

Curious about this discrepancy I went into one of the smaller camps in my region, a place called Amalow that was supposed to have 18,500 refugees, a place that was allotted food for 18,500 refugees. I walked through the camp counting the little twig huts that the refugees built, and then counting people as they lined up for their food rations. My own unscientific survey told me that there were more like 3-4,000 people there. Using friends from the Red Cross and other groups we started counting refugees. The numbers held across the board. There were about one-third as many refugees in the region as the Somali government had claimed. Across the country, the government had been claiming 1.5 million refugees. If the figures were accurate, there was a lot more food coming into the country than anyone needed.

I put all of this information into my reports.

Somalis are nomads who spend most of their time looking for food. If you put a pile of food in the desert they will come and get it. If you provide medical facilities they will come and take advantage of them. The famine camps were set up and they came.

And African leaders like to settle nomads. Nomads make it hard to build a modern state, and even harder to build a socialist state. Nomads cant be taxed, they cant be drafted, and they cant be controlled. They also cant be used to attract foreign aid, unless you can get them to stay in one place.

But the barren Somali ecology wont support a lot of people in one place. Out in the desert, one family might have eight or ten square miles of land for grazing at any given time. In the camps they were packed into a few square yards. Sanitation, which isnt much of an issue when youre alone in the desert, became a source of disease and death. For many of the refugees, the camps might as well have been concentration camps. Once they were in, they were hooked. The desert was their barbed wire.

Lives once spend herding camels in the desert were now spent navigating refugee camp bureaucracy. They spend their days waiting in lines. Food lines and medical treatment lines. Lines to collect water from the pumps.

While I was monitoring the situation in Hiran District, my colleague and friend, Doug Grice, was doing the same job farther south in Bardera and the region along the Kenya border. Once a month, Id make the five hour drive to Mogadishu, and wed meet in the house we shared on the Lido, across from the beach clubs. We were given a week or so in Mog to prepare our reports, maybe meet with the ambassador, get a hot shower, catch a movie or a videotape at the American compound. From our roof deck wed sit and cut into our rations of whiskey and beer from the diplomatic shop. Wed chew khat and watch the ships in the harbor, or try to spot sharks of the coast. And wed exchange stories about the refugee camps. Separately wed arrived at the conclusion that the relief program was probably killing as many people as it was saving, and the net result was that Somali soldiers were supplementing their income by selling food, and the WSLF was fueling their attacks into Ethiopia.

Then we'd embark on what was starting to become a report-writing ritual. Wed put all of this, all of these opinions and observations into our reports along with the facts: the tonnage of food received, and the tons missing; plate numbers of trucks seen driving off with food, names of camp commanders who werent cooperating. Along with this information wed also include our observations about the state of the refugees, and our growing doubts about the wisdom of the relief program.

Then our boss, the Food For Peace officer, Robert J. Luneburg, would storm back with the reports and say, You guys know you cant write this stuff. Stick to the facts as you observe them. So wed retype the reports and head back to the bush.

Though we'd both been hired for our Africa expertise, no one was really interested in what we had to say. They needed reports because the rules said reports had to be written. Just in case someone decided to read one of them, we were supposed to keep them technical and boring.

Thus confined by the USAID report format, I sat down at my typewriter in the dusty heat of the afternoon in Belet Uen and wrote a personal memo to Luneburg and the head of the USAID mission in Mogadishu:

"At the risk of being labeled politically naive, I submit the following. I cannot in good conscience leave Somalia without expressing these opinions to the U.S. government in writing.

"My experience in Beledweyne during the last few months has confirmed my growing suspicion that the Somali government is deliberately taking part in the diversion of refugee food, has deliberately inflated refugee figures in order to facilitate these diversions , and is now simply humoring donors by submitting itself to the impotent inspection and monitoring of the donors.

"Our involvement in the refugee relief operation is participation in a political ploy to gain support for an unpopular military government. I do not presume to influence the policy of the American government in this regard, however I believe that the situation should be recognized for what it is. Our continued support for the refugees makes possible continued activity of the WSLF in the Ogaden which in turn results in more refugees.

"I realize that you have much more information than I do but the actual situation in the Ogaden, however I have made a pint of speaking with refugees about the situation there until I was warned by the NRC [National Refugee Commission] early in July to desist. When I didnt, I was confined to my house for four days and denied access to the records of food deliveries.

"I believe that the refugees have been coerced as to the manner in which to answer questions pertaining to the Ogaden. I know that there are individuals living in the camps known as politicians who instruct the refugees in political rhetoric and in how to answer these types of questions. I have been struck by the consistent similarities of their answers to the basic questions of why did you come here? and What was life like under the Ethiopians? they all report that Cuban and Russian pilots had bombed their cattle and killed their relatives.

"There is a festering resentment among the general population toward the expatriates and the refugees. An old man stopped me on the streets of Beledweyne and demanded to know why he was not entitled to rations and health care just because he had decided to settle in the town instead of in a refugee camp.

"A man with four children working in Beledweyne for 800 shillings a month (an extraordinarily high salary) could not supply his family with the amount of food the refugees receive for free.

"Many of the town people have solved that problem by keeping a residence or a part of their family in the camps. Sigalow camp [near Belet Uen] is indistinguishable from the mud-house-back streets of Belet Uen which have now reached the borders of the camp and are joining it to the town.

"There are other issues that make our involvement questionable. Such as the recruitment by the WSLF and Somali Army in the camps. This activity takes place in all the camps in Hiran. Some of the camp commaners are WSLF officers.

"PVOs are now submitting hundreds of proposals to improve services to refugees. Expanded services to the refugees will only aggravate the problem by encouraging them to stay, and more refugees will arrive. It will spread more thinly the resource base leaving the door open for a real emergency situation in the future.

"The future for refugees in the camps holds only years of relief. The efforts of the international community should be aimed at solving the problem getting the refugees out of the camps."

The "temporary" camps, set up allegedly to shelter refugees from the Ogaden war are still there, more than ten years after that war was over. As I and many of the other critics of the 1981 relief effort predicted, the residents of those camps are still dependent on relief food and still have no way to earn a living on their own.

Several months after I sent this memo, Grice participated in study of the Somali economy. They found that the relief industry accounted for two-thirds of the countrys economy. There was no way Siad Barre could afford to let the refugees go.

And the private relief agencies couldnt let them go, either.

The Big Business of Aid

The question that no one is asking in Somalia is why such a large portion of the population starves when relief food is cut off. Why were so many so totally dependent on bags of food from America in the first place? The answer is not on the TV newscasts. Its in the ads that are running between the news stories.

The invasion of Somalia has made this the most intensely watched famine relief operation in history. And television viewers have had their coverage punctuated with ads from Save The Children something called Operation Phone Lift. The ad tells you that its very simple to save lives. It tells you that the only thing between life and death for the child on your TV screen is a little food. Just pick up the phone and call. (Have your credit card ready.) Hungry children turn into smiling children. Dial the phone and a C-5 transport lands at Mogadishu airport. Other agencies as well are rushing in to plant a flag on Somali soil, raising money, competing with each other for a limited pool of aid dollars.

But anyone watching the news already knows that sending food to Somalia hasnt really helped anyone. Between life and death there are guns and governments and corruption and all sorts of things that Save the Children hasnt a clue about. But that hasn't deterred the aid agencies who are taking advantage of the famine to do what they do best, to raise money.

Aid is a business. It is a business in which people make careers, earn a good living, get to see interesting places and have great stories to tell when they get stateside. Its a business that has to earn money to pay its executives, pay for retreats and for officials to attend conferences in Rome, buy 4-wheel drive vehicles, pay for airfare, and buy advertising time on television. Its a business that makes money by attracting clients, i.e. starving, needy people. These agencies, called PVOs or private voluntary agencies, raise a lot of money from the public, but get most of from the U.S. government.

Essentially, they cook up projects and write project proposals looking for funding. When the funding is approved, say for a project to set up health clinics in a region of Sudan, they hire people to run the project. Theyll need administrators in New York or wherever theyre based, and project managers and a couple more trucks and whatever. Every project means an expansion of the agency. The bigger the agency the more power the people up top have, the more people they can claim to be helping, and the more money they can raise from the public.

All of the PVOs get food from the U.S. government, and with each ton of food they get to distribute, they get money to move it and administer it. Naturally, theyre always looking to get more food and more money so they can say theyre saving more people and, well, you get the picture.

Letting CARE tell the government how many starving people need to be fed in Somalia is like letting Northrop tell the Air Force how many B-1 bombers it needs.

And while photogenic famines are great for raising money, most PVO projects are not in famine areas. They are in regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America where there is plenty of food. Nonetheless, a lot of projects involve food, mostly because it is a readily available resource, and one of the best ways to get grant money from USAID.

And the reckless use of food aid causes famine. It depresses local market prices and provides disincentive for farmers to grow food crops. At the same time it increases incentive to grow cash crops like coffee, tea and sugar. And as more farmers start growing export crops, it depresses the prices of those crops, the consumers of which are the very same Westerners who are dumping their own surplus food supplies on the poor countries.

Though food aid is discussed as if it were charity, most of it is supplied under Public Law 480, the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, known as the Food for Peace Program for public relations reasons. In 1954 Americas wheat surplus tripled, and PL 480 was designed to get rid of it.

Its not so different from the Japanese flooding the American market with subsidized microchips except no ones starving to death because were not doing a very good job producing microchips any more.

When its not making things worse, aid, from both governments and PVOs, supports the status quo. PVOs operating in Somalia did so with the approval of the Barre government, which only allowed projects which supported its own agenda of hanging on to power. The irony is obvious: while saying that theyre helping people, PVOs are perpetuating the power of a government that is killing them. But then again, oppressive governments dont interfere with the PVOs primary goals of expansion and fund raising.

Chris Cassidy took my place when I left Somalia. He ended up spending seven years in Somalia with USAID, Save the Children, and with the UNs Food and Agriculture Organization. In his final years there with the FAO, he worked on an agricultural project that produced a surplus of food. One of the things that got Barre and his henchmen really pissed off was when you wrote reports saying that Somalia was self-sufficient in food, Cassidy said when I called him at his home in Washington state. That was because free food is what controls the place. The mentality is: Why should we let people produce their own food and control their own lives when we can keep them under our thumbs and under the gun? We claim famine, flood and refugees and get the food shipped in here for free. Now well tell you when to eat and when you cant eat.

And stopping people from eating became the weapon of mass control that Barre and his successors have used so successfully.

Bye Bye Barre

The terror in Mogadishu began not with the anarchy of drug-crazed thugs in the employ of self--proclaimed warlords, but with police and soldiers in the employ of the legit government, the one that had been receiving $100 million a year in military and economic aid from the Reagan and Bush administrations. That money made Somalia the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance behind Egypt and Israel. Look what it bought.

In May 1988 the Somali National Movement, comprised mostly of members of the northern Isaaq clan, the most powerful source of opposition to the Barre regime, seized several towns in the north. Barres army responded with bombing, shelling, and poison gas, killing as many as 50,000 people. It was the government who began starving their enemies.

After two days of anti-government demonstrations and rioting in Mogadishu in July 1989, which had left at least 450 dead, the army began house-to-house searches. Hundreds of civilians were dragged from their beds and taken to prisons and detention centers. That same month, 46 men from the Isaaq clan were singled out and taken by security forces to Jezira beach, south of the capital. There, among the sand dunes, they were executed.

It was only then, when Barre's massacres of rival clans became too obvious to ignore, that Washington cut off aid. A report released in September, 1989 commissioned by the US State Department documents the appalling atrocities committed by the Somali Armed Forces who, it says, "appear to have engaged in a widespread, systematic and extremely violent assault on the unarmed civilian Isaaq population." The report also documents that many of the people executed by the army had their throats cut were buried in mass graves.

Meanwhile the army began its looting rampage. Chris Cassidy tells of how first he was warned not to work with farmers. They came into my office with guns and told me to stay out of the fields. So I backed off. But that wasnt enough for them. Then they went into the warehouses and emptied it of seeds and fertilizers and farm implements. If Id resisted them theyd have killed me.

The withdrawal of external assistance and the relentless armed opposition by clan-based liberation movements finally brought Barre down two years ago. But the chaos of the revolution had put power back in the hands of local military leaders, leaders who had nothing in common but their hatred of Barre and his Marehan clan. Its a familiar story.

When the Marines set off for Somalia, most of my friends called to ask me how I felt about it. Initially I felt that it was a viable short term solution to the immediate problem. To be sure, the Marines will bring food to the hungry.

But as I watched the news coverage and saw who was being interviewed on television, I began to change my mind. What the marines are doing in Somalia is handing things back to the free food people, back to the PVOs and there are more there than ever now who will happily cooperate with any government that can insure their own safety so they can keep giving away food.

The PVOs are setting the agenda. CAREs president, Phillip Johnston, visits the White House and recommends that George Bush visit the troops there. The heads of World Vision and Catholic Relief Services are treated as expert guests on talk shows. There is an assumption that these are humanitarian agencies whose only goal is to help people. In fact, they are organizations who stand to reap huge benefits in the form of lucrative contracts to deliver food.

These are the same organizations that have failed for the past ten years in Somalia and all over Africa. (Hundreds of billions of dollars of aid in Africa over the last 30 years have left the continent more famine prone and dependent on outside relief than ever.) They had thousands of refugees in camps in 1981 and they failed to get them out of the camps. They didnt get them their cattle back. They didnt teach them to grow food and to be independent. They just delivered food and collected grants for development projects.

The goal of the relief effort this time around must be to stop the food. How ever much food is delivered this month, there should be less next month. Farm implements should be brought in, and people should be taught to grow things or they should be sent back to the desert with a few camels. They should be allowed to reclaim their dignity and their lives. And they need to be given responsibility for their own lives.

Even though there is no chance of ridding the region of weapons there are too many in East Africa, and they move freely throughout the region food should be traded for guns and ammunition.

And then all of them the Marines and the relief agencies should get out as soon as possible. The U.S. is not going to stop the feuding in Somalia. Barres reign of terror kept the lid on clan rivalries, forcing age old hatreds to a boil. And now the Marines are keeping the lid on. Their presence will give the stronger leaders time to regroup and rearm. The longer they stay, the worse it will get.

In the fragile political and environment ecosystem of Somalia it is much easier to screw things up that it is to set them straight. Foreign powers, East and West through military, political and economic intervention have had an impact that has been entirely detrimental. The more we meddle the worse it gets.

The skies over Beledweyne were an endless expanse of clear blue and, the ground was hot and dusty. But in the Ethiopian hills more than 500 miles away it was raining, and the Shabele river started to rise. Every morning, in the town and in the refugee camps, people would gather along its the river and watch the debris swept along by the rising flood. Every once in a while an animal carcass would drift by.

And as the river got higher and faster and more and more junk floated past, the aid agencies started preparing. They applied for funds for flood relief. When the water flooded the refugee camps, and people began an evacuation of the town, the PVOs called a meeting with the military governor of Hiran district.

The governor was a colonel who wore Ray Ban aviators and didn't say much. He liked to speak through an interpreter even though his English was perfect. And he didn't have much patience for all these young foreigners telling him what he ought to do.

A young American representative of one of the relief groups frantically asked the colonel to order the evacuation of all the refugee camps.

We have already rescued the refugees from Qoquane camp he told the colonel.

What do you mean youve rescued them? the colonel asked through his interpreter.

Well, we got the out of the camp,

The Colonel remained still. After a minute he asked, How did you do that ?

Well, we went down there and brought them out.

Did you carry them?

No, we just directed them.. the frustration rose in his voice.

Then the colonel spoke in English. Do you think the refugees would have sat there and drowned if you hadnt come to them? These people have lived here all their lives they can take care of themselves. They dont need you to rescue them, and they dont need me to order them out of their homes. When the water comes they will go. the colonel said. They will be OK.