MOGADISHU, Somalia — The U.S. government’s top official in charge of foreign aid traveled to Somalia’s capital on Monday to announce a large humanitarian assistance package, calling it a “necessary evil” for the drought- and conflict-plagued country where the American military has engaged in counterterrorism offensives for almost 30 years.
Administrator Mark Green also reopened a bureau for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, that has been closed since a civil war began here in 1991.
In a meeting where he echoed the skepticism the Trump administration has voiced about the effectiveness of foreign aid, Green urged aid agency leaders to work toward weaning Somalia off donor money. The package he announced Monday was $185 million, only part of this year’s total. Last year, USAID gave Somalia $441 million.
“The purpose of USAID’s existence is to end our need to exist,” Green said, using a refrain that has become common among high-ranking American humanitarian officials since Trump’s election.
The United States has been Somalia’s largest donor for decades, propping up a succession of weak governments while Islamist militants have managed, at times, to take over much of the country’s interior.
The East African country is mired in climate-driven and man-made calamity. Persistent drought and the brutal tactics of al-Shabab have left 1 in 5 Somalis homeless. About the same number live in daily need of food aid. Less than a third of the population is literate, and even fewer have access to clean water. Two-thirds of people under 30 are unemployed.
In a testament to the country’s debilitating problems, the USAID announcement and a meeting with some of its local beneficiaries was held within the heavily fortified international airport — a compound most foreign aid workers in Somalia never leave for fear of attack.
Many Somalis share the hope that foreign aid can one day be phased out but see little evidence of a long-term plan to make that happen.
“We need a Marshall Plan, not just money and food and weapons,” said Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, who runs a political consultancy. “Invest big now and you will save in the future. Focus on training our army, building our institutions. America can still be Somalia’s hero, its big brother. But the current strategy is not making our problems go away.”
A mile from the airport, ashen debris from yet another suicide attack in Mogadishu littered a busy intersection, where local police officials say al-Shabab carried out twin suicide attacks that killed 11 on Saturday. The same day, al-Shabab militants across the border in Kenya killed at least eight police officers with an improvised explosive device.
Since the beginning of this year, al-Shabab has carried out 593 attacks of various kinds, killing 1,155 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which monitors global conflict. The U.S. military’s unmanned drones are the main lethal force operating against al-Shabab, as years of investment in the Somali National Army has foundered, producing just one special forces unit seen as being capable of facing al-Shabab in battle.
The U.S. government expends massively on military ordnance in Somalia in addition to its humanitarian assistance. Since President Trump relaxed rules of engagement in Somalia in March 2017, when he declared the southern part of the country an “area of active hostilities,” the pace of airstrikes has been on a constant uptick.
Last year, a record 47 strikes were carried out. In the first six months of this year, there have been 44 airstrikes, killing 298 militants according to U.S. Africa Command. U.S. drones fly from bases within Somalia as well as from a much larger base in neighboring Djibouti.
Recent reporting from American news outlets and Amnesty International have pushed the military to acknowledge the airstrikes have resulted in a small number of civilian deaths, but human rights groups say the true civilian toll is likely much higher , contributing to the radicalization of rural youths.
The United States also has around 500 troops based in the country that often accompany the Somali army and special operations forces on ground raids. An African Union-sponsored coalition has more than 20,000 troops in Somalia, some of which engage in combat, while most are tasked with peacekeeping.
At the meeting of aid agency heads, George Conway, a top U.N. official in Somalia, thanked Green for the aid commitment and said that U.S. aid money had saved “tens if not hundreds of thousands” from starvation. Green acknowledged the need for the money but asked why more wasn’t being done to make people less vulnerable to drought, and why other donor countries weren’t contributing as much as they should.
“The way I see it, food security isn’t a humanitarian issue. What are we doing about improving technology, for instance?” Green asked. “I’m not pushing for us to do less — I’m arguing for others to do more.”