Published by the Humanitarian Policy Group in December 2013, Talking to the Other Side –Humanitarian Negotiations with Al-Shabaab in Somalia is an in-depth study that sheds light on dynamics and details of negotiations between aid organizations and Al-Shabaab, primarily between 2008 and the famine of 2011.  It provides historical context to the impossible choices facing aid agencies and details how both Al-Shabaab and the actions of donor governments exacerbated the difficulties inherent in working in Somalia.  It notes that the politicization of aid by the UN and donor governments, which took sides in the long-running strife in Somalia, created a baseline of suspicion that foreign aid groups were arms of government.  Counterterrorism measures added an element that was “ultimately self defeating.”  Aid groups were routinely forced to choose between paying fees and taxes to Al-Shabaab in order to access starving civilians or to withdraw.

The purpose of the study was to investigate and understand engagement with Al-Shabaab for humanitarian access, as such talks are increasingly necessary in dangerous environments.  Humanitarian actors face “formidable challenges, including a lack of respect of international humanitarian law (IHL), hostility to humanitarian principles and distrust and suspicion of humanitarian organizations.” The study looks into “the dangers and risks inherent in this engagement, including the moral dilemma that often arise…”

The researchers conducted more than 80 interviews of former Al-Shabaab officials, civilians and aid workers. The results are presented against a historical backdrop of long-running strife in a country whose location has drawn the interest and involvement of Western powers from the Cold War to today.  The long history of aid diversion and corruption is noted, making it clear that the problems with diversion of aid during the 2011 famine did not begin with and were not unique to Al-Shabaab. It notes that:

[T]he political objectives of donor governments increasingly constrained the delivery of aid and worked against the efforts of  agencies to appear impartial, neutral and independent.”

The interviews with Al-Shabaab officials demonstrated that aid organizations were seen “as potential, and some cases, actual, fronts for Western intelligence services.  There was a widespread perception that food aid in particular was aimed at making Somalis dependent on the West.”  Bans on aid agencies were justified on the grounds that they were engaged in espionage. Military pressure exacerbated these suspicions – “the degree of military threat facing Al-Shabaab appeared to correlate to the extent of access Al-Shabaab was willing to grant.”

The report identifies both Al-Shabaab imposed restrictions and counterterrorism measures  and policies of donor governments as impediments to aiding civilians.

  • Al-Shabaab restrictions: Al-Shabaab had a “highly structured system of regulation, taxation and surveillance of aid agencies.”  This included a Humanitarian Coordination Office that was in charge of access policy. However, often negotiations occurred at the local level and results varied from place to place.  Al-Shabaab required aid agencies to pay to register, and fees ran from $500 to $10,000, depending on the size and type of organization.  The group also required reporting on activities and names of staff, along with pledges not to proselytize or publicly criticize Al-Shabaab.  In some cases the group took over aid delivery, and favored their own supporters.  “The consequences of breaking the rules were extreme: expulsion, additional taxation and attacks on aid workers.”

  • Restrictions and requirements from donor governments: Fear that aid  would benefit terrorists generated donor government constraints on aid agencies, as well as drastic reductions in funding from some, including the U.S. These restrictions are described as “bureaucratic” and became “acutely problematic.”  Examples included “pre-vetting finance checks, real-time monitoring, a bond system that required at 30% deposit on the value of goods transported and a contract provision that imposed 100% liability for shipments lost or stolen. There “was, and remains, a lack of clarity within the donor agencies about what the regulations meant and how aid agencies were expected to comply with them.”  Consequences of “breaking the rules were extreme.”

The report concludes that, “Despite pervasive attempts to divert or co-opt aid, aid agencies did not simply give into Al-Shabaab’s demands.” It explains how aid groups that “had a longstanding presence and pursued structured engagement at all levels with Al-Shabaab” were most likely to be exempted from the taxes and other access restrictions. This kind of comprehensive dialog “appeared to be the single most important action aid agencies could take to reduce the risk of diversion.”

The report notes that “the reasons why many aid agencies simply chose not, or were unable to, engage in a structured or deliberate way with Al-Shabaab are understandable” and goes on to cite political pressure from donors and the complex and confusing legal restrictions as a factor.

The restrictions “appear to have increased bureaucracy more than genuine oversight…” and “also inflicted further damage on the image of aid agencies among local populations and armed groups, already suspicious of their motivations and allegiances, hindering their ability to work safely and effectively.”