Assistance and protection in a complex emergency environment: an impossible challenge?
by Philippe Lazzarini, formerly head, OCHA Somalia October 2008

In Mogadishu today, some 50,000 people will line up in queues in soup kitchens to get a dollop of porridge, which for some will be their only food for the day. These are the worst off: families with so few resources that they cannot even afford to flee the short distance that separates the war zone in Mogadishu from the next district. The UN estimates that 60% of Mogadishu’s population of some one million has fled, just 20km away. Somalia now has the world’s largest concentration of internally displaced people; more than 250,000 are living under the most basic shelter of twigs and sheets.

The wet feeding programme is one of very few aid operations still ongoing in the war-torn capital. Although organised through a conglomeration of NGOs and UN agencies, like most aid programmes in Somalia today it is being implemented through a Somali partner. One staff member and two local authority officials who supported the programme were killed in separate shooting incidents earlier this year. The programme is neither the most efficient nor the least expensive way to ensure that people are fed and kept from the brink of starvation, yet it has been hailed as a success story. Donors have supported it and have just provided funding for an additional six months. But its modest aims beg the question: in a country where as many as two million people are reliant on humanitarian assistance, and in a context where war is spreading from the capital out to the suburbs, what can we really accomplish?

Anywhere else but here …

Over the past two years, the humanitarian situation in Somalia has dramatically deteriorated. Following the Ethiopian government’s military intervention in support of the internationally supported Transitional Federal Government’s fight against the Islamic Court Union, there has been an unprecedented movement of people from the capital. In 2007, more than 700,000 fled the insecurity of Mogadishu, and many districts in the capital now feel like a ghost town. Somalis are not only escaping fighting and insecurity, but also natural disasters. Drought has tipped a large swathe of the centre of the country into the ‘humanitarian emergency’ category. The past two rainy seasons have been bad and the next looks like it will fail as well. At times, the trials and tribulations of the Somalis seem on a parallel with the ancient Egyptian plagues: name a disaster – locusts, floods and now drought again – and Somalia will have experienced it. Today, more than two million people are in need of urgent assistance in a country which has some of the world’s worst human development indicators, including access to primary health care, education, potable water and other basic social services.

Despite Somalia’s tragic record, the massive and collective international outrage that other crises have mobilised is nowhere to be seen. Darfur, for better or worse, has its active Save Darfur and SOS Darfur coalitions, lobbying for support in the US and Europe. The latest events in next-door Kenya have inspired massive international responses, preventing the country’s descent into chaos. Somalia, in contrast, has been completely off the radar screen – and, for most people, the television screen as well.

To be sure, the recent re-engagement of regional and external actors has attracted new attention. Somalia is increasingly on the agenda of the UN Security Council. The Security Council discussion on Somalia in March lasted several hours – compared with less than 30 minutes four months previously. But even so, there is no real appetite on the part of the international community to significantly increase engagement. In his latest speech before the Security Council, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah stated that ‘there is, it seems, either a reluctance to go back there or a deliberate decision to punish all Somalis, many of whom were not even born during the last international intervention’.

UN member states seem to be subsidising humanitarian operations as a way of filling the political and moral void. This comes with a hefty price tag: in 2007, humanitarian and development aid for an estimated population of less than 10 million topped $500 million. Another $1 billion in remittances is thought to flow into the country from the Somali diaspora. Although numerous humanitarian activities are ongoing, this is thanks mainly to the courage, commitment and dedication of the Somalis who deliver the vast majority of assistance, since the situation on the ground is deemed too dangerous for international aid workers. Yet the response is still far from commensurate with needs. In Darfur, there are about 15,500 aid workers; Somalia has less than 10% of this number – and about half of these are perforce based in Nairobi, 1,000km and a world away.

Slippery slope

According to the principles of humanitarian action, intervention should be independent (selecting beneficiaries without interference), neutral (not taking any political side) and impartial (based on the principle of non-discrimination). ‘Do no harm’ should be the modus operandi. For the humanitarian community working in Somalia, 16 years of functioning in an environment of ‘warlordism’ has made it very hard to stick to these humanitarian principles. A pragmatic choice has had to be made: abide by the principles and cease to function, or compromise them and see that at least some life-saving humanitarian assistance gets to those who need it. This compromise has included contacts with militias for protection, conceding to historical clan influences and, without a significant presence on the ground, doing without the usual monitoring and evaluation of assistance. ‘Do no harm’ has been amended to ‘Do less harm’. The point is that, were we to insist on adhering strictly to our own humanitarian principles, aid operations in Somalia would grind to a halt.

Somalia is the most dangerous environment for humanitarian workers in the world. By the beginning of 2008, the situation in terms of access had never been so gloomy: three Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff were murdered by a roadside bomb in Kismayo, the expatriate kidnapping business in Puntland was booming and the targeting of humanitarian organisations’ assets continued, increasingly through the use of roadblocks and checkpoints – nearly 400 throughout Somalia, each one an opportunity for various administrations and militias to extort ‘taxes’. On top of this, the mistrust expressed by most parties towards humanitarian organisations and general insecurity have seriously impeded efforts to address humanitarian needs.

The humanitarian community appealed in October 2007 (and had done so many times before that) for a credible political process and an answer to the security crisis, to create an enabling environment for humanitarian and development activities. Meanwhile, the Security Council extended for an additional six months the mandate of the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, which is still waiting for the promised troops to fulfil its mandate (fewer than 2,500 of the 8,000 promised had been committed by January 2008).

Beyond the external factors related to insecurity and the political environment, UN humanitarian agencies are also impeded by their own internal rules and regulations. Following attacks such as those in Baghdad in 2003 and in Algiers in December 2007, the UN has become more risk-intolerant, limiting its ability to operate in the field.

Is giving up an option for the UN?

So, what in humanitarian terms can be achieved in a failed state still in the throes of a complex emergency?

Back in October 2006, the UN presence was most limited in the South Central region, where humanitarian needs were the most severe. The then Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, suggested that UN humanitarian agencies should tell member states and donors that they could no longer respond to the humanitarian crisis. Instead, the UN should focus on coordination and advocacy, and let partners develop their operational capacity. Indeed, like a mother ship and speedboats, the UN would concentrate on its role of ‘supplier’, while NGOs would concentrate on delivery. The UN would move from a service provider to a service enabler.

In saying this, Egeland was expressing real concerns about the increased difficulty the UN was facing in ‘delivering’ in complex emergencies. Security rules and regulations, while intended to promote an ‘enabling environment’ for humanitarian assistance and protection, have tended to cut off aid workers from the assisted and host population. The emphasis on physical safety, while justified by the increased targeting of humanitarian workers, widens misperception, mistrust and distance between aid workers and the populations they serve. Mini ‘green zones’, in the form of heavily bunkered UN compounds, armed escorts, armoured vehicles and even bullet-proof flack jackets and helmets, all increasingly isolate humanitarian workers from their operating environment.

Some of the problem is of our own making: aid organisations in general, and UN agencies in particular, suffer from an image problem and deep mistrust among Somalis, fuelled by years of operating with very little direct engagement with communities. Mitigating measures to enhance access to populations are incomplete if not complemented with ‘tea shop diplomacy’ – engaging with communities through their own channels of communication. Even in a country as volatile as Somalia, international presence is possible, but it requires a great deal of flexibility and creativity. Alternative ways of operating could include mobile teams, which have the flexibility to move when and where necessary to carry out a mission. In Somalia, this approach has been adopted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and some NGOs, but the UN still has difficulty adjusting its approach in this way. Another factor stymieing an appropriately flexible response is the increasing bureaucratisation of procurement policy. There is no doubt that strict rules are essential to ensure fair process and prevent the misuse of UN assets. However, rigid application of these rules, combined with a risk-averse culture, can lead to paralysis.

Blaming the bureaucratic nature of the UN agencies is too easy. Where there is political will, a way has been found. Eighteen years ago, it took the UN agencies a mere ten days to build a temporary city in the middle of the desert to host tens of thousands people fleeing Kuwait. In Somalia, it has taken more than five months to build a compound in Afgooye which would allow humanitarian workers access to what is currently the public face of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. What is possible in a highly visible context somehow seems impossible in a ‘neglected’ one.

Somalia was chosen as a pilot country in the roll-out of the humanitarian reform programme – intended to make humanitarian response more accountable, predictable and efficient. In Somalia’s case, humanitarian reform has clearly enhanced the identity of the humanitarian community, which has developed a common understanding of the scope of the crisis, common strategies and a unified response plan. Pooled funding, through the Central Emergency Response Fund and the Humanitarian Response Fund, has contributed to the joint setting of priorities and improved response. That said, agencies still have a long way to go to meet the challenge of coordinating the response in their respective clusters. Two years after the roll-out, the Somalia operation still has only one fully dedicated cluster lead out of nine. The other eight must juggle conflicting loyalties and competing demands from their agencies. The reform effort, while laudable, is not always matched by the shift in attitudes and allocation of support and resources necessary to make it truly effective.

What next?

Does this mean that, in the absence of political will and commitment from the parties of the conflict and the international community, operating in complex emergencies is not just becoming more challenging, but impossible?

Somalia in many aspects may be a special case. As long as there is no appetite to deal with the underlying causes or to address the political roots of the crisis, humanitarian organisations will have nothing more to offer than a very expensive bandage. Only by bringing the crisis higher up the agenda of the international community will humanitarian agencies be able to deal with Somalia in the way it deserves. Meanwhile, and as an immediate measure, it would be worth reminding Somalis that impunity will no longer be tolerated, and that they will be held accountable for what they say and do. With so many Somalis holding dual citizenship it should not be too difficult to send a strong signal.

Our intervention risks being a kind of transfusion extending the suffering of the population, rather than seriously alleviating it. Can we continue this way? It might be time to decide if we are going to seriously engage in Somalia: should we turn our backs for another 15 years, with the excuse that some degree of humanitarian intervention and early recovery is taking place? Or should we admit that we can no longer make enough of a difference?

Philippe Lazzarini was head of OCHA Somalia from April 2005 until April 2008. Dawn Elizabeth Blalock contributed to this article.

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