Somali aid effort impaled on the Horn of Africa dilemma

A UNITED Nations official, in white shirt and suit, crouches in the dust near a huddle of huts in northern Kenya and raises his iPad to film the carcass of a cow.

This is just one of a series of incongruous scenes that accompanied the arrival of Josette Sheeran, director of the UN food agency, to see for herself the relief effort to help hundreds of thousands of starving Somalis in the world's largest refugee camp at Dadaab in Kenya.

Ms Sheeran posed awkwardly next to carcasses, an uneasy expression on her face, as staff snapped away with cameras and phones, watched by bemused villagers from nearby El Adow.

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Officials later tried to strike up conversation with refugees, becoming used to questions from aid workers who offer sympathy and promises to make things better.

The Horn of Africa is gripped by drought, and famine was declared two weeks ago in Somalia, sparking an influx of aid workers, who sweep in and out of refugee camps and villages in planes and lines of white 4x4 vehicles. The media circus is necessary, they say, to force governments, both African and foreign, to act.

The drought straddling Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia is the worst for 60 years, some aid groups say, and is affecting more than 12 million people. In the worst-hit area in Somalia, 3.7 million people face starvation.

Reporters with Ms Sheeran, know they need to get images of emaciated babies or of "haunted" mothers with dead children - resented by many in Africa - in order to get air time. However, many analysts believe the story being told is simplistic and misleading. They say there is a drought but so many are leaving Somalia in search of food because of a festering insurgency there which, along with the forced recruitment of youths, is making matters much worse.

Much of southern and central Somalia is controlled by al-Shabaab militants linked to al-Qaeda who imposed a ban on food aid in 2010. The ban has been lifted but the World Food Programme is still embargoed as a "spy agency".

"This is not political," Ms Sheeran briefed aid workers, saying responding to the crisis was all that mattered now. "It's about saving lives."

Al-Shabaab accused the United Nations last week of exaggerating the drought and said it would not allow agencies with "hidden agendas" to return.

Part of the problem, analysts say, is that much of the funding for WFP, and some other aid agencies, comes from America, opening them to charges of political bias. "What they are really interested in is security in Somalia. Since 9/11 a 'development for security agenda' has come in with big donors," said a former senior aid worker in the Horn of Africa. "Humanitarian issues and real development have played second fiddle to security agendas," he said."While international NGOs can be very active around humanitarian response many of them don't have a long-term development strategy for these areas," said Andrew Catley, an expert on the Horn of Africa at the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University in the US.

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But aid officials said the industry needed an overhaul. "Some organisations have been here for 20-25 years and they're doing the same things they were doing 25 years ago," one said. "If you were in any other sector - and you had such a terrible impact - you'd be out of business."

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