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Passing Out Sandwiches at the Gates of Hell

By Dewaine Farria

DADAAB, Kenya—It was dusk when we arrived in Dadaab and began our journey from the dirt airstrip to the UN compound. Sinister-looking storks picked at the heaps rubbish that lined the streets, offering a preview of the misery that lay ahead. The sunsets are incredible in Kenya’s northeast, unspoilt by pollution or buildings. But you can only look at the sky for so long before lowering your gaze to the wretchedness on the ground. Life is hard in Dadaab—and recently it has gotten a lot more dangerous.

Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp. It is Kenya’s third largest “city,” and its most miserable. When you tell UN and NGO people that that you’re going to Dadaab, they know what’s in store for you. “Really?” they commiserate, “For how long?”

The population of the camps is almost entirely Somali. The first refugee camps in Dadaab opened in 1991 after the overthrow of Somali strongman Siad Barre. The resulting wave of chaos saw a mass exodus from the country. Twenty years on, the political instability in Somalia remains, as do the Somali refugees. And with Ethiopia’s recent (re)incursion into Somalia opening a third front in the country’s conflict, the refugee population of Dadaab will not be declining anytime soon.

As a UN field security officer, sometimes I have crises of faith. When you visit long-term humanitarian hubs like Dadaab you are smacked in the face with one question: Is the UN helping? My job begins and ends with the program—get people in, let them do their work, and hope that the program succeeds. It’s easy for UN field security personnel to throw their hands up, “Hey, I did my bit, the program is their business.” I’ve felt the urge to succumb to this line of reasoning more often than I care to admit. But I could not dedicate my professional life to an institution that I did not believe in.

Since last summer, Kenya’s northeast has seen a significant spike in kidnappings, ambushes, and clashes with police and military, including the detonation of at least eight improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The kidnap of two Spanish women working for Medecins San Frontieres in Dadaab on October 13thgarnered significant international attention. On October 16th,Kenyan forces entered southern Somalia to combat the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab. Active combat has been ongoing ever since.

It has been said that the goal of any humanitarian aid operation should be to make itself unnecessary. By this standard, UN operations in Dadaab have failed: 1991 to 2011 is a long time for a refugee camp to be in operation. But housing, feeding, and protecting refugees can only address the results of instability, not the causes of it. The causes of instability in Somalia require political solutions. In the absence of political empowerment in the form of a firm Security Council resolution, the agencies of the UN are left with only one recourse: humanitarian action.

The international community’s assistance to Japan in the wake of last March’s devastating earthquake is a good example of the effectiveness of humanitarian action when it is uncomplicated by a political crisis. The agencies of the UN do this type of humanitarian response very well. Criticism of the organization’s humanitarian responses tends to focus on actions in places suffering from political crises and war. During the Bosnian conflict the UN was accused of distributing food but failing to stop civilians from being slaughtered. Or, as French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy put it, “passing out sandwiches at the gates of Auschwitz.” But the United Nations Protection Force was simply fulfilling the terms of its mandate, which was essentially to “freeze” the battle lines and allow UN aid agencies to keep civilians alive. Thus, the question really should be: should the UN conduct humanitarian operations in places where it is not empowered enough to eventually make itself unnecessary?

The humanitarian community is awash with examples of aid being used as a weapon in war. During the conflict in Liberia, former President Charles Taylor demanded 15 percent of the value of aid given to his country be paid to him in cash. In Somalia, “entrance fees” charged by warlords have reached as high as 80 percent of the worth of aid supplies. In 2006, aid organizations in southern Afghanistan handed over at least one-third of their food aid to the Taliban.

What’s worse than handing out sandwiches at the gates of hell? Giving those sandwiches to the demons that run it.

The desire to ease human suffering unconditionally is a noble undertaking. But is it not always a logical one. If, in the legendary words of Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke, “the greatest kindness in war is to bring it to a speedy conclusion.”

Blindly impartial humanitarian aid can only prolong misery if it ends up supporting tyranny.  But, as opposed to the NGO community, the UN is not impartial. The UN charter gives the organization the capability to keep sandwiches out of the demons’ hands—to politicize humanitarian aid. 

The Libyan civil war began on February 18, 2011. On March 17, the UN Security Council issued resolution 1973, authorizing a no-fly zone to protect civilians in the country. Security Council Resolution 1973 and the NATO air campaign over Libya feel now like foregone conclusions. In February 2011, they were not; the legal justification for the right to protect is far from enshrined as an international norm. The agencies, funds, and programs of the UN kept these people alive before and after a firm Security Council Resolution was reached.  Political solutions take time—sometimes a month, sometimes 20 years. Impartial humanitarian aid is a noble concept. But it is politicized humanitarian aid that buys times for decisions to be reached and allows political solutions to be implemented. And that time equals human lives. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the forerunner of every modern humanitarian aid organization, and it prides itself on its utter impartiality and independence from political interests. The UN is not the ICRC. The UN takes sides—a “Chapter VII Peace-Enforcement” mission is the ultimate example of this. Organizations like the ICRC have their place, but I’m glad that, as a political organization, the UN accepts responsibility for abuse of its largesse. Whether it be saving lives or fueling conflict—no one said this type of work was going to be easy. Or guilt-free. But enough of the time, it works.

*****

*****

Dewaine Farria is a Field Security Coordination Officer in the UN Department of Safety and Security. His blog covers everything from international organizations to comic books.

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Anonymous's picture
Great article, Dewaine.It's


Great article, Dewaine.It's an eye-opener for me. Thank you for bringing up this sensitive issue. Very strong metaphor as the headline. Didn't realize the conditions in which the UN quite often operates or that there is a 'fee' or 'tax' on aid/assistance by local warlords. Crazy world...
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