On the edge of Somalia’s battered capital of Mogadishu, on a hilltop overlooking the Indian Ocean, there’s an unlikely oasis of white tents laid out in perfect rows, where foreigners mingle with locals, a bakery provides free fresh bread daily and even the sandy floors are swept. Flapping audaciously in the seaside breeze above it all is the symbol of Mogadishu’s newest foreign patron, the red and white flag of Turkey.
"In other camps, there is not enough food, the tents are too small, there is no medical care. Those are not problems here," said 70-year old Mahmoud Mohammed Afrah, who fled to Mogadishu two years ago and now, for the first time, has two tents for his large family.
"The Turks are the best. Nobody is better," Afrah said, huddled proudly in his new tent.
For a city that’s the recipient of so much foreign aid, Mogadishu is a curious place: Hardly any foreigners work here, thanks in part to a history littered with disastrous outside interventions, including the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in 1993 in the "Black Hawk Down" battle. As Somalia’s anarchic civil war has raged on ever since, the country’s aid operations have been run from nearby Nairobi, Kenya, even during the famine last year that killed tens of thousands.
The amount of aid money devoted to Somalia doesn’t seem to be the problem. Aid groups have spent billions in relief, and doubtlessly they’ve saved thousands of lives. Yet, driving through the city, it’s difficult to find any marks of the assistance or any Somalis who think the aid is managed well.
United Nations efforts here, also overseen from Nairobi, almost universally are discounted. "They spend too much money with no evident results," Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said recently.
But last year, the Turks rolled into town with humanitarian relief and never left.
The pristine tented camp is only the tip of the iceberg. Around Mogadishu, street corner after street corner promotes Turkish development projects that promise new roads, new hospitals and new schools.
"I call it direct aid," said C. Karin Torun, Turkey’s ambassador to Somalia, sitting in his second-floor office at the Turkish Embassy in Mogadishu. That by itself is rare: Western nations run their Somali diplomacy out of Nairobi, too.
Torun argues that the U.N.’s approach simply isn’t working. Because of security concerns, it funnels aid to recipients through Somali intermediaries without direct U.N. oversight and with limited monitoring, he said. "Many Somalis say that they do not receive what they are told they are supposed to," he said.
The Turks, however, manage their programs themselves.
The difference is clear in visits to four camps of displaced people. Most of the Somalis housed in those camps reported that they’d received no food or shelter from any aid organizations.
"I’ve been here eight months, and I swear I haven’t received anything," said Momino Sheikh, a 32-year-old mother of six. She bought the plastic for her hut herself, and she must search for sporadic work to feed her family. She used to have free access to water, but now she must pay to draw water from the well, she said.
In response to emailed questions, the U.N. said the area where Momino Sheikh was living – a large and growing camp of displaced people that’s known as Zona-K – was too insecure for it to serve safely. Somalis can go instead to the nearest feeding centers, nutritional centers and health centers for services, the U.N. said.
As Torun described, the U.N. has few ways to guarantee that its aid reaches the people it’s supposed to. The U.N. investigative unit that’s tasked with vetting the Somali organizations the U.N. works with is based in Nairobi. Somalis complain that most of the money earmarked for humanitarian relief is spent on the foreign bureaucracy or siphoned off by opportunistic local organizations, often in collusion with politicians, camp leaders or warlords.
Until late last year, it was nearly impossible to monitor much of the aid directly because the Islamist rebel group al Shabab controlled much of the city. In October, however, African Union troops pushed al Shabab out of the capital.
"This aid from the American taxpayer should reach the Somali needy person without too much interference in between. But that is not what is happening. I’m sure that for every dollar that is donated by the American taxpayer, it would be less than 10 cents that reach the ground. That’s no good," Prime Minister Ali said.
"I don’t think that’s fair," responded Justin Brady, the new head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia. The U.N.’s humanitarian impact is difficult for Somalis to gauge, he said, because – unlike the Turks – the U.N. doesn’t brand its projects with its logo, for security reasons. Brady also noted that his position has been relocated to Mogadishu, and he expects that staff members now in Nairobi also will move to Mogadishu, as soon as space is found to house them.
Turkey’s own engagement extends well past aid: Last August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first non-African head of state to visit Somalia’s capital in nearly 20 years. In March, Turkish Airlines became the first major international carrier to fly directly to Mogadishu.
Critics see self-interest where Turks claim charity. By next month, Somalia is expected to have a fully recognized government and a new constitution. That has energy companies foaming at the mouth for speculative oil concessions, among other business interests.
Ambassador Torun said it would be wrong to assume that the Turks ultimately were investing in Somali aid for business interests. But he did acknowledge that Turkey is in a better position to operate here thanks to its Islamic culture. "It’s not easy for many countries to work here," he said.
But al Shabab has condemned Turkey, too. In June, a Turkish convoy was targeted in a roadside explosion. Nobody was killed, and Torun said the attack hadn’t dissuaded his country from its on-the-ground commitment. Too much concern for safety keeps the job from getting done, he said.
"Everybody has risks. You have to take risks," he said.