Three weeks ago, while in Nairobi, I received a briefing on the dire situation facing the Somali people from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), and it wasn’t good. Somalia is a barely functioning nation (the current term used to describe it is a “failed state”), with internal fighting between a variety of groups forcing a half million to flee for their lives, a drought that has reduced what little food is available for harvest and, now, a struggle to find ways to feed the population.
WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian agency and along with the Red Cross and CARE has been helping to care for millions of Somalis. Because of recent events, WFP alone now must feed 1.2 million Somalis in the coming months, which will require getting about 30-35,000 metric tons of food into the country by the end of the year.
But the agency has been stymied in their efforts by Somali pirates, who have attacked 17 ships so far this year, over double from all of 2006. These attacks have gone on for a couple of years, part of a pattern that has made the waters off Somalia among the most dangerous in the world for mariners. Some may remember the attack by pirates on a cruise ship, the Seabourn Spirit, in November 2005, but few probably know that UN-chartered aid vessels have been singled out in particular. The first attack, in June of 2005, saw pirates hold a ship and its crew for a hundred days before a ransom was paid, and the most recent incident, in May, saw the death of a local Somali hired to help protect the humanitarian aid.
As I discovered while in Africa, one of the effects of piracy off Somalia has been to scare off shipping companies from carrying UN food aid. Currently, there are no firms willing to do the job, fearing that their vessels and crews will be hijacked and held for ransom. But after an appeal for assistance, there may be some help coming: On Tuesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the UN Security Council in New York that his country would offer naval protection for WFP shipments. And I know from being in the Kenyan port of Mombasa that a French warship is already taking up station in the seas off Somalia. Now all that remains is for a shipper to agree to take the aid currently sitting in warehouses in Mombasa to Somalia itself. Without this aid, a dire situation may soon become even worse.