September 3, 2011; Source: The Guardian | When does a charity have to admit that the community or country or region it is trying to help really can’t be helped, at least not now? Dominated by warlords as well as the al-Shabaab Islamic movement allied with Al Qaeda, Somalia now barely functions as a country. Expats working with NGOs there describe aid activities as a “delivery nightmare,” more difficult than operating in Afghanistan or Iraq. Inside of Mogadishu, the capital, conditions for aid workers are perilous. Outside of Mogadishu, sources tell us, it is all but impossible to function.

In addition to the long-run disintegration of civil society in Somalia, the country along with its Horn of Africa neighbors is suffering through a devastating famine. Some 11 million people are in need of food assistance, including 3.7 million in Somalia alone. Several charities are trying to respond, including CARE, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, World Vision, AmeriCares, ActionAid, Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, and many others. There’s no faulting these agencies for their dedication. They are willing to take enormous risks to try to help starving Somalis.

Is it helping? The international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), perhaps better known to English-language readers as Doctors Without Borders, has called on aid agencies to admit a horrible reality: “Helping the worst-affected people is almost impossible.” On his return from Somalia recently, Dr. Unni Karunakara told The Guardian that charities and the media were “glossing over” the problems, that “hardly any agencies were able to work inside war-torn Somalia,” and that simply giving money for food wasn’t working. He said that trying to access those in the “epicenter” of the disaster has been slow and difficult, and added, “We may have to live with the reality that we may never be able to reach the communities most in need of help.” According to Dr. Karunakara, the use of terminology such as “famine in the Horn of Africa” or “worst drought in years” masked the “man-made” aspects of the crisis and convinced people that the solution was simply to donate money and shipments of food. 

He called on these relief charities to “start treating the public like adults. . . . [P]eople need to understand the reality of the challenges in delivering that aid,” he said, adding, “We don’t have the right to hide it from people; we have a responsibility to engage the public with the truth.”

Is this simply a call by MSF for charities to be candid with donors about the limits of what their donations will accomplish? Or is MSF also saying, in a way, that man-made catastrophes like Somalia’s, exacerbated by truly vicious clan and religious warfare cutting people off from the resources they need, requires charities to triage countries and regions and not devote resources to the areas—such as southern Somalia, where the famine is worst and the al-Shabaab movement strongest—where the prospects for success are lowest?—Rick Cohen