Food and Power in Somalia: business as usual?

Hosted by the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, Department of International Development

PAN G.01, Pankhurst House, LSE


Hussein Mursal

Hussein Mursal

Senior Aid Advisor, Somalia

Mary Harper

Mary Harper

BBC Africa Editor

Susanne Jaspars

Susanne Jaspars

Researcher, CRP – Somalia


Nisar Majid

Nisar Majid

Research Manager, CRP-Somalia

Food and power in Somalia have been intimately linked for decades. Ranging from land grabs and the manipulation of food aid, to looting and diversion of aid and the geopolitics of the War on Terror, food has played a role in Somalia’s political economy. The political economy of food has been examined for the 1990s, but less so for the famines of the 2000s. This event will launch the new report ‘Food and Power in Somalia: Business as Usual?’. The panel will discuss how the political economy of food has changed in the past 10-15 years, with shifts in governance and in aid. 

Changes in governance include the establishment of Al-Shabaab which has controlled most of south-central Somalia from 2006, and the evolution of its internationally recognised Federal Government, from 2012. Changes in aid include the shift from food aid to cash transfers and nutrition during a period where people suffered famine and humanitarian crisis in 2008, 2011, and 2017. 

The report raises important issues about the concentration of power in aid, trade and production. Food and power remain in the hands of an oligopoly of businessmen, who are able to influence national and local politics and whose enterprises depend on the exploitation of others. Cash transfers involve more traders and retailers at the local level than previous food aid delivery, but they still depend on a few large traders to supply food and mobile aid cash transfers as aid has contributed to the growth of a limited number of telecoms and money transfer companies. Cash-crop production has further concentrated power and contributes to the increased displacement and marginalisation of large population groups. Displacement itself has become a business opportunity.  Few of these changes are reflected in contemporary aid regimes – which maintain ‘frontstage’ and ‘backstage’ performances where the former suggests that aid practices are improving while backstage, politics and power are prominent, aid diversion continues, and so does the marginalisation and exploitation of particular population groups. The report provides recommendations for exploring the nature of business actions, the role of civil values and for aid practices to be explicit about their political effects.  

Susanne Jaspars will present key issues from the report with further input and responses provided by Mary Harper and Hussein Mursal, who both have considerable experience of the Somali environment. The event will be chaired by Nisar Majid of the Conflict Research Programme (CRP).

Download the new report Food and Power in Somalia: Business as Usual?

Hussein Mursal (@mursalhussein) is a medical doctor, linguist and senior aid advisor and practitioner. He was raised in Somalia and worked for Somalia’s Ministry of Health in the 1980s, up to the collapse of the state. Since then he has held senior leadership positions for MERLIN, Save the Children, UNHCR and WHO in several countries across Europe, Asia and Africa. He has published a number of articles in the health field and is a committed advocate for child rights and against global poverty.

Mary Harper (@mary_harper) is the BBC’s Africa Editor. She has reported on Africa for the past twenty-five years and has a special interest in the Somali territories and the wider Horn of Africa. She reports frequently from Africa, including conflict zones. Mary is the author of Everything You Have Told Me Is True: The Many Faces of Al Shabaab (Hurst, 2019) and Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State (Zed Books, 2012). She contributes to academic journals and writes for publications including The Economist, Granta, The Guardian, The Times and The Washington Post. She has served on the Advisory Boards of European Commission and other projects related to migration, Islamist extremism and the Horn of Africa, and is a Trustee of a number of organisations based in the Somali territories.

Susanne Jaspars is a Researcher in the CRP – Somalia Team, and Research Associate at the SOAS Food Studies Centre.  She first worked in Somalia in 1987-8, and has visited on a regular basis since – for operational work and research.  Her research mainly concerns the social and political dynamics of food security and livelihoods in situations of conflict, famine and humanitarian crises, spanning a period of thirty years.  She recently completed a PhD at Bristol University on the history and politics of food aid in Sudan, now published as a book Food Aid in Sudan. A History of Politics, Power and Profit (Zed Books, 2019). 

Nisar Majid is the Research Manager for CRP-Somalia team. He began working in Somalia in the late 1990s and since then has worked across the Somali territories of the Horn of Africa, as well as within the Somalia diaspora. His early working life was focused on early warning, food security and livelihood analysis, and for his PhD he explored aspects of Somali transnationalism. In 2017 he co-authored the book Famine in Somalia: Competing Imperatives, Collective Failures, 2011-12 (Oxford University Press, 2016), and has published a number of policy reports and research studies over the last ten years.

Twitter hashtags for this event are #LSECRP and #LSESomalia.

About the Conflict Research Programme

The Conflict Research Programme (CRP) is a four year research programme managed by the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at the LSE. The goal is to understand and analyse the nature of contemporary conflict and to identify international interventions that ‘work’ in the sense of reducing violence or contributing more broadly to the security of individuals and communities who experience conflict.

It is often assumed that contemporary conflicts are the consequence of ‘fragile’, ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’ states. The CRP uses the concept of public authority, which could refer to a state, a municipality, a chiefdom or an international organisation—or any emergent form of socio-political institution. The programme investigates how different forms of public authority actually function; and we argue that levels of violence and insecurity tend to depend on the nature of the different logics. 


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