Peacekeeping: Warlords Make a Living Off Disaster Relief


June 28, 2007: Somalia is unique in that the locals have turned a humanitarian disaster into a business. This has been going on for fifteen years. Back then, when famine brought in aid agencies and food relief, some of the Somali warlords saw it as a business opportunity. The warlords began attacking and looting the relief convoys. The UN sent in peacekeepers, who got shot at a lot, and who soon got out. The relief agencies tried to keep operating since then, but they can only succeed if they play by Somali rules. That means, for example, that the trucks carrying food to starving Somalis, have to pay "taxes" to the warlords whose territory they pass through. The aid agencies try to negotiate these payments, but the best they can do is keep track of how many roadblocks there are along the routes the trucks have to take, and hope they gave the drivers enough cash to make it. Currently there are nearly 300 roadblocks in southern Somalia. The gunmen charge $20-$500 per truck, depending on what they think the driver can afford. It's a tricky business, as if they charge too much, or just steal the truck, the word will get around and the trucks will take another route, no matter how long it is.

It's not just food aid that gets "taxed," it's merchants as well. Even busses and individual cars must pay. For the gunmen manning the roadblocks, it's a good living. Sometimes there will be battles over which gang controls a particular roadblock. It's all about money, and it's worth dying for. Off the coast, Somali pirates seize ships, including UN food ships, and hold them and their crews for ransom.

Somalis have been loyal to their clans, and warlords, for thousands of years. The nation of Somalia only came into existence in the 1960s. It's never really took, and maybe never will. Many aid workers blame it all on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the reality is that when you bring a lot of goodies into a very poor and lawless area, the guys with guns will feel entitled to take whatever they want. With satellite TV and DVDs getting this bad news spread to everywhere, warlords the world over know what works. And the aid workers, who once thought of themselves as above it all, now find themselves the object of a feeding frenzy. It's happening everywhere, not just in Somalia.

What the "aid community" has lost sight of is the fact that the idea that the UN was supposed to be "impartial" was not part of the original UN concept. The original idea was that the Great Powers (the West) would use the UN to maintain order. But since the Great Powers couldn't get along, the UN evolved its own ways. The aid community, and all those NGOs that appeared in the last half century, through they were above politics. Now they have received a reality check, and they don't like it at all.




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