A complicated business: To help those in need we must address underlying policy and political considerations

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Samantha Nutt

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2012 Volume 33 Issue 1

Samantha Nutt is the founder of War Child and author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies, and Aid. This article is excerpted from Samantha’s keynote speech at Project Ploughshares’ 35th Anniversary in Waterloo on Feb. 27.

When we think about giving, as Canadians, we think about contributing primarily to projects and to programs that save lives. We don’t want to be bogged down in political considerations. We just want to know that our money is well spent and that it is making a difference. And so in this respect, organizations like Project Ploughshares are often at a disadvantage. After all, their work—for example, in support of the arms trade treaty or nuclear disarmament—is not as easily understood as initiatives like giving a goat or sponsoring a child or sending a food package.

I once believed this, too. I once believed that I didn’t want to get bogged down in the political considerations of humanitarian efforts. I was very interested in the relationship between health and human rights, though not as an activist. And so, in the mid-1990s, when I was finishing my master’s in public health, I accepted a volunteer opportunity with UNICEF in war-torn Somalia.

I got on a plane heading to Somalia with a reasonable amount of training and experience. I believed that training and experience equipped me to treat the sick and to heal the wounded and to save lives in the way that I had come to understand as a medical student at McMaster University. I wasn’t thinking about the political dimensions and I wasn’t thinking about the arms trade. But I was soon confronted by my own naiveté and my own lack of awareness of how important these political and policy considerations were.

I was based in Baidoa, which is in the south-central part of Somalia. At that time in Baidoa, roughly 300,000 people had succumbed to starvation and disease and killing as a result of conflict. When I arrived, it was right on the heels of the Rwandan genocide. Within six months, Somalia had gone from having about 200 international nongovernmental organizations operating in their country to fewer than 40. In the context of a failed state, where every clinic, the entire health infrastructure, every educational program was being driven by or funded by or run by largely external actors, when those external actors then moved on to another crisis, it was all left to ruin.

When I arrived, as part of a maternal and child health evaluation team, we were confronted with a second wave of famine—thousands of people, children especially, were once again dying.

I was the only female on the team. It was our job to travel throughout the country and to look at what UNICEF was able to do from a health-service-delivery point of view, and to go back with recommendations that would be presented to the UN Security Council that would allow UNICEF to conduct an appeal and would allow them to plan their programs in the wake of all these dramatic changes. It was also right after the troops were withdrawn that were deployed during Operation Restore Hope. So there was an intense amount of lawlessness and strengthened anti-Western sentiment right across the country.

I remember one moment in particular. I was standing with women at a feeding clinic that UNICEF was supporting. I was interviewing the women waiting in line. They were all holding their infants very close. About 20 minutes into a conversation I was having with one young woman, I leaned forward to try and put my finger in the palm of the baby’s hand. When I did that I became aware that the baby was already in rigor. It had already passed away.

The one thing that kept recurring every time I interviewed women, every time I confronted situations like this, was that they all said the same thing. They knew that their infants were sick; they knew that they needed help. The problem was that the roads were insecure. They weren’t able to get access. The aid workers that were trying to help them weren’t able to come to them either. Because everywhere you went in Somalia there were gangs of teenage boys who were armed with automatic rifles and who thrived with impunity. And they were seizing and killing and raping virtually everything that crossed their path.

And in this respect Somalia is no exception. In every country in which I have worked for 20 years now—Liberia, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Northern Uganda, Sudan—I have come face to face with kids. And often those kids are as young as eight and they have never been to school. But they have fought and killed with Kalashnikov rifles.

For aid workers back then, as it is now in Somalia, it wasn’t a question of how to go about slowing the tide of death and disease and starvation. From a public health perspective that task is actually relatively straightforward:

  • You vaccinate the priority groups;
  • you chlorinate the drinking water;
  • you run short-term food distribution programs.

The real dilemma was that this rabid proliferation of arms thwarted this progress at every single turn. As aid workers we could chronicle the loathsome absurdity of it all, but we could do precious little to stop it.

It is a very sad commentary on our world that in places like Somalia, even today, infants can succumb to treatable dehydration while waiting in line at feeding clinics because automatic rifles are more readily available and accessible in those environments than clean drinking water.

So, what lessons can we learn from Somalia? And what does it teach us about this broader social and geopolitical context?

Somalia was and still is, technically, a country that was propped up militarily during the Cold War and that later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, descended into anarchy. This is a country in which various warlords and their affiliated clans have trained and recruited generations of children to fight in their battles in full and flagrant violation of international law. They deserve to be held accountable for their actions. But the chain of accountability doesn’t end there.

The problems that plague countries like Somalia need to be understood and acted upon in a global context.

In order to understand how and where we might have an impact, we need to understand how weapons—and the young men in particular who rely on these weapons to wage war—are not only allowed to exist but allowed to thrive.

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