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Aid, corruption, and neighbours in need: A reporter reflects on Somalia’s record drought

People need help, but the limitations of international aid are stark.

People fleeing drought and conflict arrive in sprawling settlements on the outskirts of towns like Baidoa, in south-central Somalia, in August 2022. Mercy Corps
People fleeing drought and conflict arrive in camps in Baidoa, in south-central Somalia, in August 2022. A record stretch of below-average rainfall has left 7.6 million Somalis in need of assistance.

It was around 10:30 at night last May that we heard a knock on our front door. It was late so my mother called out and asked who it was. A woman’s voice rang back from the other side.


Standing in darkness, clutching a baby, the woman began narrating her story of the drought that is devastating Somalia. She told us that she had fled her hometown, lost her livestock and assets, and that her children desperately needed food.


After my mother gave her dates and cooked rice, the woman set off on her way. Yet the encounter left me feeling cold and defeated, and for a few minutes I stood motionless. Nine months on, I still wonder what happened to the woman and her baby.


A sixth season of failed rain

Somalia is bracing for an unprecedented sixth consecutive season of below-average rainfall. The situation is so bad that the UN says there is a strong possibility of famine in the coming months.


Famine was not declared last year, but the situation was still catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes in search of water and food. Tens of thousands are thought to have died.


“The drought has underscored the problems of international aid: its unaccountability, its focus on short-term intervention, and its perpetuation of a social and political system built on tribalism and corruption.”


I have been reporting on the drought and its humanitarian consequences over the past year. I have also witnessed the suffering from my home in Dolow, a southwestern border town that is hosting thousands of people in ramshackle camps.


These people desperately need help, yet the drought has underscored the problems of international aid: its unaccountability, its focus on short-term intervention, and its perpetuation of a social and political system built on tribalism and corruption.


To prevent hunger and famine, we need to dismantle this system. Yet it seems to me that aid agencies and our government have a simpler solution in mind: more Plumpy'Nut (a paste that tackles malnutrition), more makeshift camps, more handouts.


This approach is not helping people transform their lives, a woman called Shamsa who is in her 50s and has been receiving aid since 1992, told me recently. “We are as poor [now] as back then," she said from a camp in Dolow.


Fear of the f-word

I have had many recent encounters like the woman at my door. A few months ago, I crossed paths with a woman who had trekked 200 kilometres to Dolow with her two young children. She did not know where she was or where to go next.


I gave her directions to the nearest camp, despite knowing how bad conditions are at the settlements. People are living in cramped conditions in small tents made of pieces of cloth and plastic sheeting.


 “The gravity of the situation does not appear to have registered with our new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.”  

Last month, I visited a camp in Dolow and met a woman called Hafsa. She told me she had lost two of her children in just 10 days before deciding to leave her village in the southern Bay region.


Her journey to Dolow was several hundred kilometres, and along the way she lost a third child – a daughter called Amina who was three years old. Though Hasfa is now in a displacement camp, her last surviving child is weak and malnourished.


Everybody at the camp had a similar story of loss and tragedy. Yet the gravity of the situation does not appear to have registered with our new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.


Mohamud’s government is neglecting drought victims just like other administrations have done over the past 30 years. He is concerned that announcing a famine will damage his reputation and hinder development efforts.


Aid agencies, meanwhile, blame climate change for the crisis. This is a simplistic view which overlooks deep-rooted social and political issues, and helps the government and international community dodge accountability.


Standing in line

I am 23 years old and have experienced droughts throughout my lifetime. In the early 2000s, I used to visit feeding centres with my mother. Health workers would give us oatmeal and a form of nutritious biscuit called BP-5.


The centres would prioritise women with children, and the more children you had, the more food you would get. Some women would pick up kids that were not their own from nearby villages in order to receive more supplies. 


Still, according to my mother, the most common acts of corruption back then were the theft of large portions of food relief items by individuals in various positions of social influence.


There have been times in the recent past where as much as half the food aid being distributed by aid groups was stolen by corrupt contractors, armed fighters, and aid workers themselves.


“Local aid workers feel disempowered too. They are on the front line of this emergency, yet feel like decisions are made by faraway bosses.”


It is unclear to me how much has changed. Three months ago, I was standing at a food distribution centre, watching relief supplies being unloaded from trucks and handed to people queuing in a long line.


Out of nowhere, a group of people turned up and started packing a portion of the items into their car. “Look at that, look at that,” said a person who was standing in line. They were implying that the food was being stolen.


I can’t be sure this was an example of corruption, but it was clear that people in the queue had no idea what was going on or who to complain to. At the very least, it showed the danger of depending on organisations over which we have no control. 


‘We feel like we have no soul’

Many Somalis hold negative feelings towards aid agencies. They have spent billions over the past decade but have little to show for it. Their programmes ignore long-term needs, and there are no strong government institutions to account for this.


When I asked a woman at a camp recently what it felt like being dependent on NGO handouts for years on end, she provided a stark response: “We feel like we have no soul.”


Local aid workers feel disempowered too. They are on the front line of this emergency, yet feel like decisions are made by faraway bosses working in the guarded green zone bubble of the capital, Mogadishu.


"We do all the work they ask us to do, [and] you can't complain about it at all,” one aid worker told me. Another said their boss threatened to fire them for criticising the lack of money being spent on water infrastructure.


This reality is rarely captured by international media. Most foreign journalists have been reporting on the drought by embedding with the UN and other aid agencies. Their stories read like aid agency funding campaigns.


Still, the takeaway here is not that aid is bad for Somalia. The UN’s $2.6 billion funding appeal this year for the country will need to be met in order to avert famine. Yet a better system is needed to account for how that money gets spent. 


Accountability and education

For too long, humanitarian aid has been a cash cow for warlords and political elites. For too long, international efforts to construct a central government here have propped up administrations and leaders who are robbing the country.


International actors have collaborated with the various governments we have been subjected to over the years so that they can focus on their main priority: fighting al-Shabab. This blind spot underscores the narrow vision they have for Somalia.


Droughts have laid bare the many issues with our political system and the way it excludes and discriminates against certain groups. It is time that our government, in collaboration with aid agencies, addresses these structural issues.


I could mention 100 things that need doing, but education should be the anchor of this plan. While I am materially poor, schooling has afforded me a sense of power and opportunity.


I find it hard to imagine what the psychological impact of this drought and past ones will be on Somalia's children. Without proper education, the future of this country will not be bright.


I think again of the baby of the woman that knocked on my front door last year. And I think of the last surviving child of Hafsa living in the hardscrabble camp. They both deserve so much more.


Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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