World Affairs: Arab world asked to give as Africans starve

Oil-rich states come through with aid, but humanitarian groups say they could do more.

Refugee camp in Dadaab 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Refugee camp in Dadaab 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The United Nations has a message for the Arab world: Give more aid to help famine victims in the Horn of Africa.
“If we’re serious about mobilizing adequate resources in a short time, I hope we look to the Gulf states. That’s the only place where the money is today,” Jeffrey Sachs, a senior adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told the body’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Ban has called the situation “catastrophic” and has personally appealed to Arab leaders for immediate humanitarian aid to feed the famished in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya.
Ban telephoned Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz to thank him for Saudi Arabia’s donation of $60 million for food supplies through the UN’s World Food Program, and to ask for more. Similar personal appeals went to the rulers of oil-rich Gulf states Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ban’s spokesman said.
So far, an estimated $1.1 billion has been committed from non-Arab donor countries, about half what is estimated will be needed for the humanitarian response to the drought emergency, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
While Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s leading donor of humanitarian aid, other Arab countries have only now begun making contributions to victims of what aid agencies are calling the worst drought and famine in the Horn of Africa in 60 years.
The UAE dispatched a four-member team for Mogadishu this week to coordinate relief supplies of food, drinking water and medical supplies. The Kuwaiti emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has already pledged $10m. to relief efforts in Somalia through the Red Crescent Society. Even Sudan, which topped the list of the world’s recipients of international humanitarian aid with $1.3b. in 2010, donated $178,000 to Somalia’s drought relief.
However, there has been criticism over the low aid pledges, and some say not enough is being done.
“Muslim and Arab intellectuals and leaders often complain of Western meddling in their societies, but most of the aid organizations that are now trying to save Somali lives are Western. It’s time Muslim and Arab organizations and governments stepped up to tackle this humanitarian disaster,” wrote Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, in UAE daily The National.
The Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has operated in Somalia and other areas, handing out food. It has been able to operate there, since the Islamist militia Al-Shabaab in Somalia prefers Islamic aid groups over Western ones. But the situation has deteriorated so badly that earlier this month, Al- Shabaab lifted a two-year ban on foreign aid agencies.
Until this week, Arab donors have only reported a small amount of humanitarian aid to the Horn of Africa, according to Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA), a British-based aid monitoring group.
Saudi Arabia was the largest donor among countries outside the developed world, with $258m. given last year, up substantially from $82m. in 2009, according to the GHA. The UAE gave $38m. in 2010.
“Arab donor countries, such as the UAE, do think of themselves as donors, but their methods of ‘promoting’ their aid can differ from those of other non-DAC donors,” said the GHA’s latest report authored by Kerry Smith.
“There is a strong culture of giving in Muslim countries; for example, approximately 2.5% of a Muslim worker’s wage often goes towards charitable work. However, just as ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand does,’ so it is not part of the culture to discuss how much is being donated,” the report said.
“In 2011, Arab donor contributions to the humanitarian crises resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings are relatively low,” Smith told The Media Line, adding that only Yemen had benefited from some aid.
“No humanitarian aid has been reported from Arab donors to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Bahrain,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, we don’t know the true extent of humanitarian aid from Arab donors because not all contributions are captured.”
Saudi Arabia dominates Arab world giving, contributing about 80% of its total contributions with a total of some $2.1b. in the past decade. On the other hand, the Arab Spring has raised oil prices, filling the coffers of Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters and enabling them to disburse money to allies.
At home, Riyadh has committed to spending $125b. on created jobs and other programs just in a bid to keep its population content. Saudi Arabia has also doled out billions of dollars to Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia to prop up their regimes, threatened by unrest since the revolutions began.
“Key Arab states stepped up with massive aid packages for Egypt after the revolution there, which had difficult economic fallout.
Somalia’s crisis, far more severe, requires the urgent attention of the entire world, and the Arab and Muslim world should be at the forefront,” said Molavi.
Theodore Karasik, director for research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told The Media Line that motivation for giving was as much a geopolitical move for Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia as it was humanitarian. Pirates from Somalia have seized tankers and other ships carrying Gulf oil and other goods.
“Sudan is very important to the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Gulf states], as is Somalia, because of the situation in southern Sudan and the energy reserves that are there, and in Somalia because of the piracy issues, so they’re starting to send humanitarian aid to Somalia and Sudan,” Karasik said. “The whole region comes under their sphere of influence.”
Molavi echoed this sentiment, saying Arab countries should lead the way, among other countries in the region, “not least because instability in East Africa affects its neighbors, as we have seen in the Somali piracy threat.”
He added, “Here’s an opportunity for the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to demonstrate leadership in a growing crisis in their own neighborhood, rather than simply waiting for the Western ‘cavalry’ and the United Nations.”