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Dollars, Deja Vu, and Death in Somalia

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How the seamy side of the international relief effort is turning a crisis into a calamity.

Famine in Somalia. Mogadishu in a state of "gun-blasted anarchy". A UN-run airbridge brings aid to the worst-hit area, but its effects are patchy. The supply chain is plagued by corruption, schisms, distribution problems, gunmen, and the deadly business logic that makes looting humanitarian supply lines easier and more profitable than harvesting from fields nearby where food lies rotting.

Welcome to the news, second time around. For the above is not, in fact, a sketch lifted from today's foreign pages - through in almost every detail, it is the same - but from a feature by reporter Brian Johnson-Thomas in the October 18th, 1992 edition of The Observer.

Yet not everything is the same. Despite the continuing scarcity of food, justice and medicine for most Somalis, some things have got far, far cheaper. They are guns. And those guns are the key to understanding the circular absurdity of the Somali tragedy.

In 1992, the price of an AK-47 in Somalia was just under $75. Today, in common with Afghanistan, the price has tumbled to around $25. And unlike any of the signs and symptoms of civil society - policemen, teachers, sanitation, schools and hospitals - these weapons are everywhere. They are within reach of anyone in government, in the hundreds of rebel or criminal gangs; and anyone with a line into that fattest of prizes, the aid supply chain.

Because while food, medicine and shelter are the focus of the Somali aid mission, the hordes of aid workers, suppliers, transporters, fixers and execs also bring with them money. For Somalis, it's become a shortcut to stability, plenty, security, influence, and justice, albeit of a summary kind. Because money means you can join the weapons merry-go-round.

Somalis are no strangers to foreign money, and what it does. The stop-start floods of international aid dollars provide the lucky few with personal riches beyond words, and feed a growing shadow-economy that only can't be called 'black market' because there's no 'white market' left for it to undermine or oppose.

The coastal waters are often quite literally awash with cash, as strongboxes packed with millions of unmarked dollars dropped to pirates from the skies as ransom for ships and crews come to grief on impact with the water, their green-backed cargo borne ashore by the waves.

In my book Outlaws Inc. about the deadly overlap between aid transport and arms trafficking, I detail the way in which those ransoms are parachuted from cargo planes, at the behest of Western underwriters and insurers keen to get their kidnapped boat back for $20 million rather than cough up $100 million to the owner on a replacement-new-for-old basis. I also describe the ways in which the drops are made, through a network of international blue-chips and charter agents, cargo airlines and fixers.

But this cash from the developed world does not arrive without consequences - either for the next crew kidnapped, or for Somalis themselves, victims of an unstable local economy in which the arrival of $20 million in ransom money can inflate prices a hundred-fold in an hour, then cause catastrophic localized crashes as it disappears again.

Much of what these groups make is reinvested into the tools of their chosen trade: greater selective blindness from the authorities, more muscle, and more diverted Russian-made weapons.

Which brings us back to those humanitarian flights. The fact is, even according to the UN's own Panel of Experts on Somalia, enough of the outfits contracted to bring the aid into disaster zones also bring high-demand goods, freshly minted cash, and AK-47s on the same flights, into a country already in the grip of civil war. This, to quote arms monitor Peter Danssaert of the Antwerp-based International Peace Information Service, is "a dirty little secret in our world."

The blindness which many well-meaning outsiders, from NGOs to the UN, display in the face of their own complicity is as staggering now as it was 19 years ago. Back in 1992, foreign correspondent Brian Johnson-Thomas wrote: "Ubiquitous gunmen control every aspect of life in Somalia and there is no sign that the supply of arms is drying up... Since every visitor - be he aid worker, UN official or journalist - has to hire his own bodyguards from there same gunmen, it is essential to get their support even to travel to the gun market."

Now look again at today's news. Footage of starving families. Aid workers imploring the world to sit up, take notice, give, do something. Analysts calling for Al Shabab to lift its decree banning foreign aid. Al Shabab claiming reports of a famine are "pure propaganda". Nuances of cause and effect are lost amid the media-savvy noise. The reality is, the disastrous economic interplay of rebels, aid agencies, the UN, media and government, has turned a drought into a vortex of dollars and death.

The newteams fly in and out, and film what they are shown. In their reports, the gunmen are nowhere to be seen. Nor are the pirates. Nor the mercenary airmen, fixers, looters, corrupt officials. But to ignore them - to talk about famine and relief in isolation - is perhaps the biggest, blackest, most deadly lie of all. Only one BBC report this month contained the barest hint of the fatal compromises being made: "Most Western aid agencies quit Somalia in 2009 following al-Shabab's threats, though some say they have managed to continue operating through local partners."

Until the focus shifts from aid alone to exactly who those "local partners" are, and the part they play in the Somali tragedy, we may as well switch off the news, and turn back to that yellowed newspaper from 1992.

Matt Potter's book, Outlaws Inc.: Flying With The World's Most Dangerous Smugglers is out now, published by Pan Macmillan/Bloomsbury USA.