50,000 Somali kids at risk: UN, gov't ask for help

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Associated Press

Posted on February 25, 2014 at 8:32 AM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 25 at 8:35 AM

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — Somalia's 2011 famine is over. Militants have been pushed out of Mogadishu. Political progress is being made. And yet the U.N. and Somali government are pleading with international donors to help a country they say is still in crisis.

Aid groups, pressed to respond to emergency situations in Somalia in recent years, have not been able to put the time or resources into building the country's systems, the U.N's aid chief for Somalia said Tuesday.

Many in the country remain in dire circumstances.

"We have 50,000 children at the doorstep of death," because of severe malnourishment, Philippe Lazzarini said.

International donors, squeezed by the continuing crisis in Syria and new emergencies in South Sudan and Central African Republic, have given less money to Somalia.

Donors also have continuing concerns about the theft and corruption of aid money in a country with less effective government oversight of money.

Lazzarini argues that Somalia's health indicators are even more dire than those in South Sudan or the Central African Republic, two nations getting more headlines in recent months. Somalia, he said, suffers from an aid-giving bias from donors because it has been suffering for so long. In addition, if donor funds drop off now, it could undermine the fledgling state building process, he said.

"While the situation is in no way comparable to the famine, we are still in a situation comparable to just before the famine. We need to be sure people can absorb future shock," Lazzarini said. "The work is half done. If we stop now the gains will be lost."

The U.N. is asking for $933 million for its 2014 Somalia aid operations. It says 2.9 million people need life-saving assistance.

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, meanwhile, told journalists on Monday that Somalia needs to see donors who pledged $2.4 billion in assistance at a conference in Brussels last year make good on those promises.

"Our people were given high hopes that must be delivered on the ground," the president said.

Mohamud's government faces donor doubts, however, because of persistent corruption. A report by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea this month accused the government of diverting arms meant for the military to private militias and even an al-Shabab commander who could help Mohamud consolidate power in his home region. The monitoring group in the past has also detailed allegations of corruption inside government ministries.

Lazzarini said he expects a certain portion of food aid to be stolen in Somalia, but that a great majority of it still reaches those in need.

Those $2.4 billion in pledges were made in hopes of maintaining Somalia's general positive trajectory. Despite the allegations of corruption and mismanagement, Mogadishu is in a far better situation today than it was five years ago, when al-Shabab militants controlled most of the city.

African Union troops are planning an offensive in coming weeks in hopes of taking even more territory from the al-Qaida-linked militants. About 60 percent of the population living in south-central Somalia is under the control of al-Shabab, or about 3.5 million people, Lazzarini said.

One concern the U.N. has is that the offensive could take place during planting season in a region known as the country's food basket. "And it might have an impact on the next harvest," Lazzarini said.

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