Researching food, power and aid practices in Somalia by Nisar Majid and Susanne Jaspers
Food is central to power. Food has influenced power relations through land grabs and the manipulation of food aid as part of a system of political patronage, and through looting, displacement and diversion of aid by soldiers, warlords and militia. It has played a role in how countries are governed and who benefits from famine and relief. At the same time, famine or protracted crises, are often the result of the marginalisation, discrimination and exploitation of certain population groups for example the agro-pastoral populations in Bay and Bakool regions and the riverine farmers along the Juba and Shebelle rivers in Somalia. These groups have shown persistently high levels of acute malnutrition and suffered the most severe famines, including in 1992 and 2011.1 These issues are the subject of a new CRP report on ‘Food and power in Somalia: business as usual?’ by Susanne Jaspars, Guhad Adan and Nisar Majid.
The report examines, in particular, the changes in the political economy of food with changes in governance, and with the change from food aid to cash transfers over the past 10-15 years. The wider political economy of food, and in particular food assistance, has been much examined for the 1990s, but less so for the food crises and famines of the 2000s. Changes in governance include the rise of Al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group from 2006, controlling most of south-central Somalia thereafter. The other key change in governance is the establishment of Somalia’s internationally recognised Federal Government. The study combines political economy with the concept of the political marketplace (a political system characterised by constant bargaining over power and loyalty) and with that of regimes of aid practices, to examine how food practices influence politics and power relations. Analysing regimes of food practices involves identifying sets of linked practices, their objectives and assumptions, the organisations, authorities and businesses involved and the power effects they have. In Somalia, this meant considering the full supply chain and all of the actors involved in agricultural production and in food assistance. These may include farmers, traders, businesses, as well as aid organisations, and other non-state and state actors. The analytical framework for the study built on Susanne’s earlier research on the history and politics of Food Aid in Sudan.
From the mid-1990s to 2010, many of the largest commercial contracts in Somalia were those for the provision of food aid. In 2010 the UN Monitoring Group accused WFP of working through a cartel of private businessmen, some of whom were connected to the Council of Islamic Courts and the transitional government of the time. Anti-terrorism legislation and later Al-Shabaab banning of food aid led to a huge reduction of food aid (and its associated contracts) from 2010 and coincided with the rise of cash as a new aid delivery modality. The Somalia famine of 2011 led to an unprecedented cash-based humanitarian response and, since this time cash has continued to be a critical delivery mechanism for assistance in the country. The form of cash assistance has itself evolved quickly as the telecommunications and money transfer sectors in Somalia have developed, with mobile money transfers taking over from cash-based hawala transfers.
As these technological changes have been taking place, southern Somalia has increasingly been turning into (or resembling) a series of city-states, representing both the government and its international backers and the rural, agricultural hinterland largely controlled by Al Shabaab. Most attention and resources are focused on urban areas, where many displaced populations live, while changes in the rural economy and interaction between the rural and urban environment are little understood.
The report shows that the shift to cash has resulted in a dispersal of power among a wider group of actors, in particular local authorities and other local power brokers who are now often part of networks that determine who does and does not get assistance. Furthermore, where previously, food aid was often looted or sold and sent back to Mogadishu, cash often remains in the districts and regions but is part of the management of population and political marketplace at the more local level.
Many of the businessmen and politicians who made their money from the earlier food aid contracts continue to be active, especially in Mogadishu, and have moved into other areas of contracting, including in fuel supply management, security and hotel provision, much of which is based in the ‘green zone’ of the MIA (Mogadishu International Airport).
One of the most concerning trends is the transformation taking place in the rural economy in southern Somalia, with the huge displacement/outward migration of rural populations and the shift from food to cash crops. The focus of attention and resources in urban areas is likely to be contributing to this rural-urban movement, while increasing demand for sesame and lemon from the Gulf and India is thought to be leading to big businesses and traders buying or taking land from farming populations. This is increasing vulnerability to food insecurity and perpetuating the marginalisation of certain rural populations. Equally concerning is that the exclusion and marginalisation of particular groups remains, whether in rural areas or as displaced populations (and one influences the other).
Somalia has increasingly turned into a space that favours the emergence of oligopolies rather than a free market. Even the displaced have become a business opportunity. This oligopolistic pattern or tendency may even describe parts of the donor-agency networks. Within this landscape international actors struggle to ‘see’ – make visible – the power relations that are determining these changes (and continuities) and the role they play in it, including in the position of vulnerable groups. The report argues that current aid practices have made the political causes and benefits of this ongoing marginalisation invisible. It challenges contemporary humanitarian analysis and response, and suggests exploring the legality and morality of business actions, the role of civic values and for aid practices to be explicit about their political effects.
1 Daniel Maxwell and Nisar Majid. Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011–12, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.