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The Americans Who Didn't Leave Somalia

THE headlines read ``Americans Out of Somalia.'' But not all were out. Press accounts reported that some United States Marines and diplomatic personnel remained, but few took note of another group: those staff members of private voluntary organizations (PVOs) who were administering relief. As of April 1, 63 American citizens were in Somalia in this capacity.

As the world focuses on problems of humanitarian relief in troubled regions, those actually providing such help are the forgotten heroes and heroines. They are seen in brief sequences on television against the backdrop of a mud-walled hospital or in the midst of emaciated people in a food distribution center. They are photographed reluctantly saying farewell to local colleagues when they must leave areas of danger. World attention seems more often focused on the military protectors than on those being protected - the relief workers.

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At the height of the United Nations presence in Somalia, in November 1993, 40 US PVOs had operations helping Somalia, either in the country, in neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya, or by sending supplies from abroad. Activities included food distribution, access to clinics and hospitals, sanitation, education, veterinary aid, and refugee encampments. In some cases, agencies were looking beyond immediate problems toward more permanent development through water and agricultural projects.

The PVO relief effort in Somalia - as in every disaster area - is international in scope. US organizations included workers of many nationalities and were integrated into efforts with counterpart organizations from other countries. Somalia gained world attention, but US PVOs are working in many other hot spots as well. According to InterAction (the American Council for Voluntary International Action), more than 150 of its member agencies operate in more than 160 countries.

These agencies, both secular and religious, are engaged in disaster relief, refugee protection, resettlement, help to small enterprises, and an array of efforts to help communities improve the quality of life. They are supported by more than $1.5 billion each year in private donations. Some agencies receive help from the US Agency for International Development. Last year this official help exceeded $600 million, half of which was in the form of food aid commodities.

Relief workers face not only the physical threats of armed conflict, but also the day-to-day challenges of making projects work in regions of chaos. As recipients and custodians of food, tools, seeds, and medicine - items rare in areas of need - the agencies are the targets of thieves and extortionists. To move supplies often requires endless negotiation with warring elements and anguished compromises with bandits. In Somalia, even members of the newly formed police force, pictured as contributing to stability, were requiring bribes to permit PVO supplies to pass.

Relations between the voluntary agency personnel and officials, both local and foreign, are not always easy. The humanitarian organizations have a primary objective to save lives and, if possible, to reestablish the economy. PVO personnel hope to create effective local structures to carry on the work so that they may move on to other needy regions. Every day they encounter those with different, sometimes conflicting agendas: UN military personnel seeking to disarm a population; foreign diplomats concerned with the security of expatriates; local leaders who would deny help to their rivals. Not surprisingly, relief workers, in closer touch with the people of the country than any other external players, often have different perspectives on personalities and local issues than do diplomats.

In areas where government structures have collapsed, PVO personnel must decide with whom they can work without becoming themselves involved in struggles for power. Beyond this, these individualistic PVOs must also cooperate with each other to insure the effectiveness of the total effort.

And in all activities relief workers cannot ignore their own safety and the wisdom of sufficient rapport with diplomats and officials to gain protection and assistance when they may be needed.

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The relief workers were in Somalia before the soldiers; they remain after many of the soldiers have left. Others are in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, and other disaster areas. They deserve the world's recognition and support.

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