Issue 40 - Article 6

Protection and livelihoods in Somalia

October 9, 2008
Alexander Tyler, UNHCR

Khadra is four months pregnant. Her husband is chronically ill, making her the sole breadwinner for her family. Like many of the women in displaced persons settlements in Baidoa, a town now crammed with people fleeing the conflict in Mogadishu, Khadra’s only source of income has been selling firewood, which she collects by walking tens of kilometres outside Baidoa. Taking her two young daughters with her for the journey, she sells the firewood for 30,000 Somali Shillings, or just over one US dollar, on the roadside near her makeshift home, where she has been living for over a year. Not only is collecting and selling firewood not enough to provide for her large family, but it also puts Khadra and her daughters in harm’s way. ‘I was chased once by several armed men,’ she explains. ‘That time we were able to escape, but other times some of my friends were raped.’ She has tried to earn more money by cleaning clothes for wealthier families in Baidoa – some days she was paid, other days not. She has occasionally received some humanitarian aid, either in the form of food or plastic sheeting and other household items, but the landowner, to whom her community has to pay rent, would come the next day to take his cut of the assistance, or threaten eviction.

Khadra is one of the estimated 700,000 people displaced from Mogadishu in 2007, amid arguably the most intense period of violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the city since 1992. The list of abuses linked to the conflict is long: indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas; roadside bombs and skirmishes affecting civilians; recruitment of children, on both sides of the conflict; arbitrary arrests and detention; sexual violence; looting of property; intimidation and assassinations of journalists, civil society figures and civilian administrators – the list goes on.

The conflict has compounded an already poor human rights record on the treatment of minority clans, women and children around the country. Coping and survival strategies for displaced women have become increasingly desperate. Mariam, another woman displaced to one of the many settlements in Galkayo’s urban sprawl, collects rubbish in town in order to survive. ‘I have felt sick ever since I began collecting garbage,’ she complained. ‘First I was able to put the garbage on some vacant land nearby, but the landlord came and forbade us to do it anymore as he wanted to build on that land.’ She now has no choice but to stock garbage sacks next to her makeshift shelter, under the hot sun. ‘Now my youngest child is not feeling well either.’ Other displaced women have reportedly been selling themselves for sex.

Providing an effective response to the protection needs of the many survivors of the conflict in Somalia is a daunting task. Through the new Cluster Approach, piloted in Somalia since 2006, UNHCR and OCHA are responsible for coordinating monitoring and reporting of protection violations and designing and implementing responses. Protection coordination meetings are well attended by a number of other UN agencies, international and national NGOs, both in Nairobi and at field locations in Somalia. Whilst this coordination certainly needs to be strengthened, there have been some positive initiatives. UNHCR and UNICEF, partnering with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Oxfam Novib, work with over 50 national NGOs throughout the country, which monitor, report on and advocate against human rights abuses and forced displacement. This system allows the humanitarian community to track violations, conduct advocacy campaigns at the international and national levels and plan assistance for newly displaced people. Many other agencies integrate a protection and gender perspective into their programming, supported by a series of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) working groups chaired by OCHA in Nairobi and UNFPA in the field, most notably in Hargeisa, Galkayo and Baidoa. A considerable number of both preventive and remedial GBV projects – from awareness-raising to the provision of psycho-social, medical and legal support – are gaining momentum. Other agencies are involved in training local authorities, communities and other stakeholders on human rights norms, including UNDP’s Rule of Law programme.

Yet it would be fair to ask whether any practical difference is being made to the lives of Somalis through these projects. Certainly, any positive stories appear to be drowned out by daily reports of the deteriorating political and security situation, accompanied by a numbing silence from the international community where there should be outrage and condemnation. We are often left asking ourselves: what can be achieved in terms of protection in this environment?

Blinded by the ‘big picture’

Part of the problem lies in the difficulties of applying meaningful and measurable indicators for the success or failure of protection activities. Compared to the quantitative percentage measurements applied by the nutrition and health sectors, protection indicators tend to be more indirect, qualitative and subjective. Counting the number of human rights training sessions held measures an agency’s performance, but gives little indication whether this has led to a change in the behaviour of local authorities or other actors. Qualitative and subjective indicators, such as measuring changes in displaced women’s sense of security over time, are valid, but do not translate well into the matrices that support policy decisions in Nairobi. Significant advocacy campaigns are ongoing, most notably through OCHA and an informal NGO advocacy forum, but again, measuring impact can be tricky. This is complicated by the admittedly important ‘behind closed doors’ advocacy conducted by senior UN staff dealing with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and UN Member States, which by its very nature is not ‘public’, and the details of which may not be available to the rest of the humanitarian community, let alone to the Somali people themselves.

The problems of measuring the impact of protection activities make it very difficult to assess what has worked and what has not, certainly at the macro level. Looking at graphs showing displacement patterns and reading summaries of abuses, we might be tempted to throw our hands in the air, exclaim ‘nothing can be done’ and blame the Global War on Terror, local power politics and general insecurity for undermining our efforts. On the other hand, whilst the constraints we face in halting abuses at the macro level are indeed serious, we should not be blinded or paralysed by the bleak big picture. There are still ways to make small differences.

Back to basics

Take Khadra in Baidoa. She is now benefiting from a small livelihoods grant, provided and monitored by the Bay Women’s Development Network, a national NGO working in Bay region. Khadra and her daughters no longer collect firewood, and they are no longer exposed to rape in the scrubland outside the town. Earning a living through petty trade, she no longer humiliates herself by begging for work from other families who might or might not pay her at the end of the day. She feels safer and is less worried about being able to provide for her children, including her soon-to-arrive newborn.

Khadra may not count for much in an aggregated Excel matrix, but she does represent a small success for protection delivery, as do a series of communities benefiting from Protection-Livelihoods projects in Baidoa and the Afgoye corridor, where over 300,000 IDPs have found a precarious refuge. The concept behind this approach is well described in a recent HPG Working Paper, which draws parallels between protection approaches and more development-oriented livelihoods frameworks. The paper emphasises the interlinked character of the strategies people use to improve their economic situation, security and future opportunities, especially in times of conflict. For instance, if people are collecting firewood in order to increase their income, but this is placing them at risk of attack and rape, livelihoods programming can assist in creating safer alternatives. Reducing asset depletion for displaced women may put them at less risk of being forced into selling themselves for sex as a survival strategy. Improving adult access to income may increase the likelihood that the family will invest in education for their children, rather than relying on the income their children get through begging or shoe-shining. The indicators used for measuring the success of such projects are not simply a percentage increase in income, but include qualitative and subjective indicators, such as the beneficiary’s perception of change in her own or her family’s security or future prospects.

Such approaches may also represent a more cost-effective and efficient alternative to individual distributions, such as food and plastic sheeting, as they avoid the often exorbitant transport costs, as well as making it more difficult for interest groups to divert aid. That being said, the evening after livelihood grants were distributed in one makeshift camp in Baidoa, young men from the town were seen hanging around the site. They were quickly removed by the local police, but this does demonstrate that any form of assistance, including livelihoods support, has to be carefully combined with detailed risk and stakeholder analysis, discussion and negotiation with the security forces and duty-bearers, as well as close and continuous monitoring at all stages of the project. ‘Do no harm’ principles are at stake at every turn.

A crucial part of protection-livelihoods programming is that it adheres to participatory methodologies in terms of design and implementation. The type of activities to be supported need to be determined by the beneficiaries, rather than by outsiders – not least for reasons of sustainability and efficiency, as this approach can help to garner support from the communities themselves.

Engaging with the community can also present a safer way of investigating and addressing protection issues, both for agency staff and for communities themselves. Participatory assessments can be a less contentious way of finding out about abuses, and can create an environment, through focus groups or individual discussions, whereby participants are able to share concerns that they might otherwise be reluctant to reveal. UN national staff, often unable to raise sensitive protection issues with powerful stakeholders for fear of their own security, could potentially do so through the prism of the livelihood project itself. This in turn may counter the common perception that protection concerns can only be effectively addressed by international staff. This may be true for some advocacy approaches – for instance, denouncing abuses – but it is not always the case where more indirect means are used. With access for international staff deteriorating, strengthening national staff through training on these alternative approaches could be a crucial next step.

Of course, participatory approaches are not new, especially in development theory and practice, but they are worryingly thin on the ground in the Somalia operation – with some notable exceptions such as those pursued by UNICEF, the Danish Refugee Council and UNHCR. Indeed, UNICEF has been using community-based protection approaches in Somalia for some time, focusing on protecting the rights of children, but also touching on UNICEF’s core programmes including health, education and water and sanitation. The agency maintains a network of Child Protection Advocates (CPAs) drawn from and living with communities themselves, who provide an important link between UNICEF and the Somalis it is trying to help. Over the last three years, UNICEF has reached over 1,000 communities in this way. These sorts of programmes might not make the headlines as they are often not very visible, but they can make a difference to the lives of Somali children and their communities.

The Humanitarian Policy Group is currently conducting research on the links between protection and livelihoods. For more information, visit:

If you have any lessons or experiences of this type of programming, please get in touch with Sorcha O’Callaghan ( and Susanne Jaspars ( who are leading this work.

Some aid workers may argue against such approaches because they are time-consuming and costly, or are not appropriate in emergency conditions. But Somalia has been in a constant emergency for decades. Failure to prepare the ground properly before starting any project – be it in health, education, water, protection or individual assistance – reflects rather our own limitations. By now, we should have learnt the lesson that, if you do not spend time engaging with communities and stakeholders, a myriad of protection issues will arise, and the assistance provided will most likely be distorted and diverted the minute the well-meaning aid agency leaves the scene.

It is true that the sustainability of protection-livelihoods projects may be questionable in a conflict zone, certainly as more and more unexpected ‘shocks’ occur, and we need to do more to incorporate a learning and adjustment process into project management in such an unpredictable environment. More research is required on the long-term impact on the protection capacities of displaced communities, through the enhancement of their socio-economic resilience. While these broader questions are debated, the small successes witnessed so far suggest that we cannot, and should not, stop trying to help Somalis like Khadra.

Alexander Tyler is a Protection Officer working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for Somalia. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect the opinion of UNHCR, of the IASC Protection Cluster for Somalia, or of the United Nations in general. Alexander’s e-mail address is:


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