Uphold your principles, don’t shrug your shoulders
by Reena Ghelani and Zia Choudhury October 2008

Humanitarian agencies, whose sole mandate is to save lives and ensure that those who require humanitarian assistance receive it, have been faced with tough choices during the past 17 years in Somalia. Somalia, one of the world’s longest ongoing humanitarian operations, has challenged how we operate, often forcing agencies to compromise principled action for the sake of delivering assistance at almost any cost.

Somalis are suffering in frightening numbers but, even with relatively significant resources at their disposal, humanitarian workers are frequently unable to confirm that the majority of aid delivered is reaching the people who really need it. Rather, in parts of south and central Somalia, humanitarian managers admit that they sometimes have no idea how much assistance reaches its intended beneficiaries, and even less idea what impact it has. The usual principles which define our work: independence, neutrality and impartiality cannot easily be upheld consistently, and the frameworks for improving the quality of our services, such as beneficiary participation and monitoring systems, are often bypassed.

Why is humanitarian work so difficult?

Why is humanitarian work so difficult in Somalia, and why has it become apparently acceptable to operate there outside of our normal values, principles and systems? The answer to the first question is primarily related to issues of accessibility. Security for aid workers, both Somali and foreign, is extremely poor, with intimidation a daily occurrence, whilst kidnapping and assassination are increasing. Getting access to communities in need, and then focusing on serving the most vulnerable, is often not possible, as powerful armed actors impose restrictions on aid delivery: illegal taxation of aid agencies, ‘help’ with beneficiary selection, coercion during recruitment and forced contractual relationships with certain service providers are just some of the many methods that reduce aid effectiveness. This way of working has existed for almost two decades, and the obstacles preventing access to people are only increasing.

The answer to the second question may be related to the depth of the humanitarian crisis, and feelings of collective responsibility to do something – anything – to relieve suffering. Somalia was and remains a country with some of the worst human development indicators in the world. Plagued with crisis after crisis, humanitarian agencies have been caught in a constant cycle of providing basic assistance merely to try and help people survive. Today, Somalia is experiencing its most acute humanitarian crisis since 1993, with 2.6 million people in need of humanitarian support. This number is likely to increase in the coming months due to the significant deterioration in the food security situation and creeping drought. In addition to the food crisis, human security also fluctuates wildly, as armed groups vie for control amongst themselves.

In short, Somalia is an extremely difficult place for humanitarian agencies to operate safely. The extreme humanitarian needs, the established process for taxing and coercing aid agencies and the general disregard for humanitarian values have led to long-term and systematic compromises by aid workers in order to deliver assistance, a position accepted in practice by managers and donors.

Aside from external factors that hinder aid delivery, there are numerous internal agency-related issues, which are not specific to Somalia. These include a widespread culture of unaccountability, which results from having a largely unregulated humanitarian sector. There is insufficient emphasis on continuous improvement, even during the height of a crisis, arising in part from the fact that future funding is not necessarily dependent on past performance.

The dangers and challenges of operating in Somalia have at times left humanitarians with little choice but to abandon the drive to meet humanitarian standards and continuously improve their work. How can you deliver a high standard of work if you face such inaccessibility and insecurity? Non-Somali staff often claim that it is just too difficult to operate. Those familiar with working in Somalia will recognise the classic justification for the inability to explain quality or progress: a shoulder shrug, accompanied by ‘oh, but this is Somalia’. The despondency which many aid workers feel is strengthened by regular evacuations or closures of programmes. A more worrying sentiment has also developed (which again is not uncommon in difficult contexts), whereby the responsibility for poor-quality aid work is transferred to Somalis. This sentiment has a dangerous edge to it, as increasingly aid workers seem to blame an inability to deploy expatriate staff for a large portion of their problems. The inferences are clear.

The Joint Operating Principles

The challenges and compromises discussed above affect one group disproportionately: the Somalis who are in need of humanitarian assistance. They are an unlucky group, living in a country at war, with large ungoverned areas, chronic poverty and climate extremes, and unable to benefit properly from the resources pouring into the country. This predicament alone is justification enough for the humanitarian community to seek big changes.

In 2006, UN-OCHA and a group of NGOs agreed that humanitarian agencies needed to adopt a more collective, more organised and more principled approach to fulfilling their mandate of saving lives. In line with the implementation of humanitarian reforms in Somalia, the Joint Operating Principles (JOPs) were initiated as a means of improving the quality and accountability of aid services. The approach is simple and not at all revolutionary: it involves highlighting three key humanitarian principles, which all bona fide humanitarian agencies claim to follow already (humanity, neutrality and impartiality); it involves following seven operational frameworks which no bona fide humanitarian agency would ever dispute (participation of the beneficiary population, respect for Somali culture, operational independence, transparency, accountability, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse and coherence); it involves having a strategy and action plan to realise those principles and approaches; and it involves a system for transparently reporting progress, and receiving peer support when progress is a struggle. Above all, it assumes that, in the Somali context, humanitarian agencies will work better collectivelythan individually, especially when agencies are often not seen by others as separate entities, and when agencies themselves claim to follow more-or-less the same set of principles and approaches.

The JOPs attempt to untangle core humanitarian principles and operational approaches by restating them and relating them to everyday situations in Somalia. There are two key features. First, agencies are encouraged to act collectively (e.g. the current action plan proposes development of a collective complaints handling system) where possible, or at a minimum to speak with one voice and be conscious of how one’s actions impact on another. Second, agencies must report on their level of compliance with the JOPs overall. The latter is the first step in encouraging agencies to report transparently on how they have tried to achieve a principled operational approach, and then explain their level of success and highlight obstacles.

A rotating Steering Committee is proposed to analyse these reports, request feedback and clarification from individual agencies and prepare a non-attributed analytical summary of all the submitted reports, for general publication. The process will assist the Steering Committee to review the JOPs and the action plan. Agencies will in theory improve transparency and accountability by preparing this report. They will also be encouraged to continuously improve their performance, by being obliged to analyse their levels of compliance with the various commitments.

This peer review mechanism is designed to be supportive, and to provide objective and constructive feedback to agencies. It is also designed to provide general feedback to the public about humanitarian performance. It is not intended to replace an organisation’s standard legal and moral obligations to monitor, evaluate and continuously improve its work. The peer review mechanism promotes the concept of meaningful reporting against all the principles, standards and codes that an agency commits to. It provides a safe forum to discuss any reporting of non-compliance with a principle, whether due to unforeseen operational constraints or because temporary exoneration is being sought in advance.

It seems simple enough, yet the JOPs have not yet been operationalised, more than two years after they were first developed. The reasons for delay are many. The current situation, whereby agencies find it difficult to uphold values and commitments, has ironically led some aid workers to marginalise them completely, leaving them to the statute books and agency websites. For some, the grave challenges in Somalia have become immoveable obstacles. A self-perpetuating cycle has been created: it is too difficult to uphold values and principles, so we won’t even try. However, by not trying to find solutions, we dilute those principles, to the point where, eventually, they risk losing all critical meaning.

Others view the JOPs as overly intellectual and too far removed from the everyday operational challenges faced by field staff. The JOPs have tried to highlight the key operational concerns of field staff, and then relate them to core principles and operational frameworks. However, there remains a sense that this is not practical in the Somali context, and is simply too hard to achieve.

Reluctance to report publicly to a peer group, and to be forced to explain non- compliance, has been an issue for some agencies. The JOPs’ champions recognise that this is largely due to a long history globally of ‘opaque transparency’ when it comes to NGO reporting. The final argument against implementation is the misperception that it is ‘all or nothing’. The JOPs cannot be fully implemented overnight, but should be considered as a phased approach and process that slowly but surely attempts to address the hard issues. Some organisations remain focused on the parts of the JOPs that will indeed be difficult in practice. While this is a legitimate concern, many other basic elements can and should be implemented today.

The JOPs are not a panacea for the problems of aid delivery in Somalia. They are, however, a bold, systematic and collective mechanism to explore, engage and promote the principles our work is supposed to be founded upon. While resistance continues, a core group of organisations is dedicated to moving them forward, arguing that, by using the JOPs to try to meaningfully follow principles, we demonstrate a loyalty to our mandates, which otherwise are in danger of being eroded. The JOP process forces us to seek solutions, founded on core values, and then be transparent. A core requirement of the JOP process is to seek exoneration when a principle cannot be met. It is more honest and constructive to explain in detail why we cannot not be impartial (for example), rather than just blaming security overall or – heaven forbid – shrugging our shoulders again. The JOPs allow us to display our humanity collectively, regardless of whether others respect our values, and also help us to lobby collectively for accepted humanitarian values.

The JOP process has led to other important discussions on how to improve the quality of humanitarian action in Somalia. For example, we need to look very closely at our overall management processes and how they work in Somalia. Clearly, Somalis have a distinct management culture of their own. We may need to change our entire management paradigm in order to be effective in Somalia, especially if agencies rely on largely Somali in-country staff. We certainly need to challenge our prejudices, to be more creative and transparent, but above all we must keep trying.

Rather than give up and compromise our values, principles and commitments, the JOPs’ initiators wish to use them to revitalise, motivate and strengthen the humanitarian mission. Yes, it is really very tough to work in Somalia, but our humanitarian values are still at our core and we must uphold and cherish them. It is no longer enough simply to shrug the shoulders and say ‘oh, but this is Somalia’.

Reena Ghelani is Senior IDP Advisor, OCHA Somalia. Zia Choudhury is Deputy Regional Director, Danish Refugee Council, Horn of Africa.