Somalia Should Serve as a Warning for Disaster Recovery In Unstable States

The seemingly ceaseless plight of the Haitian people has been widely syndicated since the earthquake on Jan. 12. While the miasma of chaos, destruction, and death persists, concerns about the recovery effort’s ability to successfully revive Haiti have arisen. To examine the likelihood of these fears becoming reality, one need only turn to 1991’s Somalia: a nest of suggestive history.

Through “Operation Provide Relief,” the U.N. had hoped to alleviate the famine in Somalia brought on by the Somali Civil War, a conflict that still rages on with the equivalent fury of its early days. The inception of the war—the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991—brought with it both the bloodthirsty contestation of territory between Somalia’s various factions and the purging of Somali agriculture. As Somalia’s self-induced starvation was brought to the eye of the occasionally stultified international community (Let’s not forget about Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early ‘90s.), the U.N. commissioned a relief effort.

After the starvation of more than a quarter-million Somalis, the U.N. food packages began to touch down in 1992. This would have been a gratifying development, were it not for the theft these packages met once they had joined the fray. Food became the new Somali currency for political power, both igniting allegiances between factions and financing war efforts through the international exchange of food for weapons. Approximately 80 percent of the U.N.’s food packages failed to reach the hands of the starving population. In the pursuit of redressing this international blunder, President George Bush offered the services of 25,000 U.S. combat troops for U.N. deployment. The resulting hodgepodge of violence and confusion led to several disastrous years of warfare, from which the U.S. eventually withdrew in 1994. Between January of 1991 and the U.N.’s withdrawal in 1995, countless Somalis were killed, an obscene amount of relief effort indirectly financed the atrocities, and the U.S. endured what was, at the time, one of its costliest and most protracted battles since the Battle of Mogadishu in Vietnam.

By now, the parallels should be obvious, as well as somewhat cogent. The Haitian government is next to nonexistent, more than 3.8 million of its people are going hungry, cases of banditry are propagating, and agriculture has been severely damaged due to several causes including drought, flooding, damaged infrastructure, and a considerable diminution of investment. With the official U.N. death toll rising (currently 61, including senior official Andrew Grene), the relief effort can be described as disorganized at best and haphazard at worst. Haitian senator Endrisse Richie claims, “The government has not been able to even prove symbolically that it exists.” With a headless state plummeting further into bedlam, the situation seems distressingly ripe for factional warfare. Reports have already begun to surface detailing an armed attack on a food convoy several days ago, just outside of Jeremie.

As the 20th anniversary of the Somali civil war approaches, a brief check-up is in order. Somalia is currently a failed state according to every applicable definition. It is devoid of a national government and is incapable of providing anything approximating security for its citizens. The recent pirate attacks on foreign vessels are a direct result of Somalia’s inability to police its own population. Whether or not Haiti is destined for this precise outcome is anyone’s guess. Yet this is a contingency worth acknowledging. Should a lack of governmental legitimacy spark factional warfare in the region, would the violence be manageable for the international resources already pooled in the area? One gleaming advantage that the Haitian crisis has over its Somali relative is the presence of U.S. and U.N. troops in the region prior to the crisis. Obama is clearly looking to capitalize on this advantage, as he has recently ordered the deployment of 2,000 Marines and 3,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to the region. One can only hope that escalation of this nature will not exacerbate hostilities, as such a move could be regarded as a de facto endorsement of the very government that may soon come in question for the people of Haiti.

Meanwhile, the donation bells will be ringing thoroughly throughout the rest of the world, as the cost of pulling Haiti to its feet will be the primary item of public concern. Whether or not this aid will eventually benefit its intended targets is a different question altogether, and one worth asking.

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