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Features » International

The aid workers' dilemma: pay or walk away?

NGOs in Somalia paid terrorists to let them operate. Were they right?

The aid workers' dilemma: pay or walk away?

File photo: rupa/

Al Jazeera International

December 12, 2013

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Aid agencies work in some of the most dangerous environments in the world, often facing hostility and harassment, extortion and attack.

Now a new report has detailed how aid groups in Somalia had to pay armed fighters for access to areas under their control.

The joint study by the Humanitarian Policy Group, the Overseas Development Institute and the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, looked at the demands made on aid groups by al-Shabab during the 2011 famine in Somalia, which killed more than 250,000 people.

The report found that al-Shabab, considered a "terrorist" group by the US, sought to control aid agencies through a system of regulation, taxation and surveillance.

Aid groups were forced to pay as much as $10,000 to 'register' their work. They would then have to disclose project details, their budgets and even staff members' names.

They were sometimes forced to pay so-called additional 'taxes', and in many cases al-Shabab insisted on distributing aid, and kept much of it for themselves.

But is that how aid agencies survive in conflict zones?

“It is never clear cut in conflict zones. Aid agencies have to make deals and accept unpalatable conditions from all sides just to function, and at times simply to survive. That means they sometimes end up paying the ransom that armed groups demand. But the alternative is to do nothing, and see many more people suffer and die," says Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste.

Aid groups have come under fire before, for inadvertently picking sides.

Millions of dollars were sent to help Ethiopia's famine in the 1980s but critics say some money ended up in the hands of rebels who used it to buy weapons.

Even now, concerns are being raised about Syria, where aid groups must cooperate with either the government or rebels. It can mean supplies and medicines can be used to help only certain groups.

This fine line means that aid work can be viewed with suspicion.

Agencies point to one particular case that caused immeasurable damage to their reputation in Pakistan, involving the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden.

In the weeks before the al-Qaeda leader was killed, the CIA told a Pakistani doctor to set up a fake vaccination scheme in the town of Abbottabad so they could try to gain access to Bin Laden's house.

When news got out it cast doubt on the integrity of aid workers in general, 200 US aid groups wrote to the CIA blaming the ploy for a polio crisis in Pakistan.


Full Story: Aid agencies: Cooperating or compromising?

Source: Al Jazeera


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