Interview: Rajiv Shah

The USAID administrator on the epic food crisis in the Horn of Africa, dealing with al Shabab, and why Somalia's famine is going to get worse before it gets better.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

USAID administrator Rajiv Shah returned from a trip to the Horn of Africa last week, where nearly 12 million people are facing the worst drought in 60 years. Compounding the problem — the hardest-affected areas are in parts of Somalia under the control of the al Qaeda affiliated militant group al Shabab, which in the past has barred Western humanitarian groups and killed aid workers.

Foreign Policy: You visited Somali refugees in Kenya. Describe how bad the situation really is there.

Rajiv Shah: This is a tragic situation. I had the chance to meet a young woman with two kids who had traveled for 32 days by foot from south central Somalia to Dadaab [a refugee camp across the border in Kenya]. She stood in a line with hundreds of other people — all of whom were suffering and had very visible manifestations of acute hunger, including her two children who will be checked into the refugee camp and who will receive vaccines, health interventions, and emergency feeding. But, as with so many of the children I visited, many will not survive because they are literally starving to death. This is clearly a famine in south and central Somalia. It is in fact the worst drought that the Horn of Africa has experienced in more than 60 years. And it effects 11 and a half million people. So it is a devastating and significant scale.

FP: What are the biggest problems for getting aid to the worst effected people in Somalia?

RS: The United States has been overall the largest responder, providing nearly $460 million of support and reaching nearly 4.5 million people, helping most of those people avoid falling into a condition of famine — which is a very specific condition defined by the number of child deaths — 2 child deaths per 10,000 per day related to food insecurity. We’ve been doing that in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia — in areas where there has been enough humanitarian access to be able to get that done. It’s no coincidence that the areas the U.N. declared as meeting the definition of famine were precisely those parts of south and central Somalia that have been under al Shabab control and where humanitarian access has been limited by Shabab over the past several months to years. But now we are taking Shabab at their word — they are saying publicly that they are going to allow humanitarian access — so the entire global community is testing that proposition by seeking to get to, and provide services in, the most inflicted areas.

FP: How would the United States be able to do that since there are very strict Treasury Department rules that say no U.S. government money can be spent on projects if there is any risk that it will "materially benefit" a terrorist organization [which is how the United States defines al Shabab]?

RS: Well, we have made the determination and I have made the determination that Shabab has offered legitimate humanitarian access — based on their statements and based on a negotiation led by the United Nations special representative in the region. Based on that, where there is humanitarian access, we are providing support through the World Food Program, UNICEF, and so many other partners to be able to serve people who otherwise will starve to death. That’s important and we’re being very aggressive in trying to reach vulnerable populations, wherever there is some degree of effective access and we’re basically testing that proposition.

FP: How are we testing it? Are we actually able to get into those areas?

RS: Well, we’re getting into some. And the World Food Program and UNICEF and other U.N. partners are working with local NGOs — and some of the larger international NGOs are essentially expanding their presence into Somalia to reach more acutely effected communities in south and central Somalia. And we’re collectively providing them with food and financial resources and medical support to conduct that expanded humanitarian operation.

FP: In the past, al Shabab has killed aid workers and banned aid groups.

RS: You’re absolutely right. The World Food Program actually had to leave those regions because they had lost 14 of their staff in a relatively short time frame. It is dangerous work. We have an expectation that Shabab will live up to its public word and allow unfettered humanitarian access for the purpose of saving these lives.

FP: If they don’t — and there seems to be divisions and debate within the organization — is there any way to get aid to people in those areas by going around the group? Or is that not possible?

RS: It’s quite variable across different parts of south and central Somalia. We know there are ways to provide humanitarian support that are relatively more protected than others…

FP: Such as?

RS: How you manage convoy transport and providing vouchers so people can use local markets to obtain critically needed food. And reduce the size and scope of big visible convoys. So, there are a number of different strategies that are employed. But the bottom line is they do have to allow effective humanitarian access. We and other donor countries and U.N. agencies are all standing together [behind] the key humanitarian priority of saving the lives of these people who are suffering from an extraordinary drought and famine.

FP: Some aid groups, like Mercy Corps, have criticized the United States because our aid to Somalia since 2008 has dropped from $237 million to $20 million earlier this year. They say that drop off has affected the humanitarian response and preparedness in Somalia. Is that a fair criticism?

RS: Not really. Some of that is actually about where food in the region is pre-positioned. Those numbers don’t actually reflect the scope of activity that’s taken place. But also, a big part of the reason there’s been a shift is the World Food Program — which is one of our main partners — had to back out of its Somali operations in big parts of Somalia because of the violence and deaths that were inflicted on them by these local leaders and their organizations. It has been a challenge in a very difficult context, having an expanded, visible operation. That said, the United States has actually been the global leader through the entire Horn of Africa in terms immediate humanitarian and emergency response. We take pride in our commitment to being a major part of this response. We believe it’s a global shared responsibility and that’s why we’re trying to raise resources from all parts of the globe, including the Middle East and other partners that could be a big part of helping us succeed in saving lives and protecting unnecessary child death at this critical point in time.

FP: Where does this crisis go from here? Despite the aid, it doesn’t look like it’s getting better.

RS: I think it will get worse before it gets better. We know that the drought — by our data and monitoring systems — will likely persist through the fall rains, which may come in mid-October. And, even after initial rains — that’s not going to lead initially to a renewed availability of food and water more broadly. So, this is going to be getting worse before it gets better, which is why we are working so hard to insure effective humanitarian access.

Robert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.