The world’s aid agencies have become “lords of poverty” and their claim that famine has struck Somalia’s capital is “absolutely” false, according to Abdiweli Mohammed Ali, the country’s prime minister.
Mr Ali, who leads Somalia’s officially recognised government, chose the week when the United Nations has appealed for $1.5 billion to help his country’s people to deliver a stinging attack on relief workers.
A Harvard-educated economist, he believes they have become an “entrenched interest group”, exaggerating the scale of suffering in order to drum up donations.
The United Nations says that 250,000 Somalis are suffering from famine in three regions of the country, including Mogadishu. Patches of waste ground across the bullet-scarred city, devastated by two decades of war, are filled with the shacks of refugees who have fled drought and food shortages. Children with distended bellies and stick-like limbs can be seen in many of these sand-blown camps.
Seated in his air-conditioned office, Mr Ali said the UN’s judgment that famine had struck his capital was wrong. “I have no idea how this international community makes the grading. You ask them and tell me how they did it. They don’t know what they’re talking about. But what I can say is enough relief came to Somalia and we provided enough relief to those affected by the famine.”
Mr Ali added: “I don’t believe there’s a famine in Mogadishu. Absolutely no. You know the aid agencies became an entrenched interest group and they say all kind of things that they want to say.”
Mr Ali cited a searing critique of aid workers, “Lords of Poverty”, written by Graham Hancock, a British author, in 1989. “I don’t want to be a conspiracy theorist, but I believe a lot of what has been said in the 'Lords of Poverty’ book by Graham Hancock,” added the prime minister.
Mr Ali leads a government that depends almost completely on outside donations. Somalia, which collapsed into anarchy in 1991, has no tax system and the prime minister’s administration controls little territory beyond Mogadishu.
Its only significant source of revenue is the capital’s port, which brings in around $12m per year. Virtually all of the rest of this year’s budget of $100m comes from other countries. Mr Ali’s government is probably the most donor-dependent in the world.
Nonetheless, the prime minister said that aid workers “became themselves lords of poverty. They say what they want to say. I don’t want to accuse them, but the statistics that they use sometimes doesn’t make sense to me.”
Aid officials were privately incredulous about Mr Ali’s remarks. The UN says that “tens of thousands” of Somalis have died of hunger this year. Mark Bowden, the humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, said the situation was “expected to remain critical well into next year” and that $1.5 billion was needed to meet the “emergency needs of 4 million people in crisis”.
At Walalah camp in Mogadishu, over 1,000 people live in shacks fashioned from cardboard and brushwood. Because of the dangers of operating in the capital, UN relief agencies have only a skeleton presence. So far, no aid of any kind has reached this camp.
Farhiya Abdi has lived in a shack in Walalah since drought killed all of the animals her family once herded in their home village in Somalia’s interior. Her twin babies are both emaciated from hunger. So far, Mrs Abdi has received no food aid whatever. Only donations from the elders who control the camp have kept her and the children barely alive.
“This is worse than the situation back there in the village,” she said. “But I cannot go back there because all the animals are dead.”
The World Food Programme is supplying feeding centres in the city, but the nearest is several miles away and Mrs Abdi is took weak to walk that distance. Her life, she said, was dominated by “hunger”.