Issue 53 - Article 9

The impact of UN integration on aid worker security in Somalia

March 20, 2012
Samir Elhawary
Humanitarian Policy Group
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visiting Mogadishu, December 2011

UN integration arrangements are the strategies and structures developed to facilitate greater coherence and coordination among UN agencies, funds and programmes, with the aim of maximising the collective impact of the UN’s response. The benefits and risks of UN integration for humanitarian space have been intensely debated for many years. Most humanitarian actors accept the need for greater coherence within the UN system, at least at a strategic level. However, many NGOs object to greater structural arrangements because they claim that this would result in the subjugation of humanitarian priorities to the UN’s political objectives. UN humanitarian actors have expressed similar concerns. On the other side, the UN political and peacekeeping community argues that there is little evidence to suggest that this is the case, and that humanitarians have misunderstood the concept of integration. Some proponents of UN integration also believe that hostility towards these arrangements among some humanitarian actors stems from resistance to greater scrutiny over aid diversion and other sensitive issues. This article examines the impact of UN integration arrangements in the context of Somalia, with a particular focus on the security of humanitarian workers.

Strategies and structures: UN integration arrangements in Somalia

UN Security Council Resolution 1772 (2007) called on the UN to intensify its efforts to promote peace and stability in Somalia. At the time, the various UN agencies, funds and programmes engaged in the country were deemed to be working at cross purposes and duplicating their efforts. The political and humanitarian components of the UN were at loggerheads over the delivery of assistance to Al- Shabaab areas, the need to work with and through the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and issues of aid diversion. Ken Menkhaus, ‘Stabilisation and Humanitarian Access in a Collapsed State: The Somali Case’, Disasters, vol. 34, Special Issue: 340–41, October 2011.

Within the framework of the UN’s integration policy, an inter-agency Integrated Task Force (ITF) was established in 2007 to develop an integrated strategy for Somalia and to serve as a mechanism for coordination, planning sup-port and information exchange between the UN Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS) and the UN Country Team (UNCT). At the strategic level, there is a Joint Planning Unit (JPU), a mechanism to provide regular information exchange and facilitate joint planning between the UNCT and UNPOS, a high-level Senior Policy Group, which discusses issues of general concern, and an Integrated Strategic Framework, a UN-wide strategy for engagement in Somalia. At the structural level, the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (DSRSG), concerned with the political side of the UN presence, has been kept separate from the Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, who is responsible for the UN’s development and humanitarian operations. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is also separate from UNPOS.

The impact of integration on the security of humanitarian workers

Between 2006 and 2011, there were over 150 security incidents against aid workers in Somalia. These incidents are not confined to one specific actor, and UN agencies, NGOs and both international and national staff have all been affected. Although the number of incidents has declined dramatically from the high point in 2008, this is largely believed to be the result of a reduced humanitarian presence in South Central Somalia.

The primary factor affecting the security of humanitarian workers is the overall security environment, which since 2006 has been characterised by pervasive insecurity and a complete absence of rule of law. However, there are also more specific factors at play. First, attacks on humanitarian workers are often economically motivated, as humanitarian assistance has become part of the war economy. Second, divisions and loose alliances between various armed groups have made it difficult for humanitarian organisations to identify who is in control in certain areas, and determine whether security assurances made by commanders or leaders will be respected in practice by other allied groups or junior members. Amnesty International, Somalia: Fatal Insecurity: Attacks on Aid Workers and Rights Defenders in Somalia (London: AI, 2008).  Third, the absence of rule of law has meant that most incidents are not investigated by the Somali authorities, perpetrators are not brought to account and there is therefore no effective deterrent. Fourth, and most relevant to the discussion on UN integration, some armed groups are suspicious of humanitarian organisations and feel that they have ulterior motives, such as collecting intelligence for Western governments, supporting the TFG or opposition forces, pursuing personal enrichment or wanting to proselytise the Christian faith. J. Gundel, Humanitarian Action in the New Security Environment: Policy and Operational Implications in Somalia and Somaliland, HPG Background Paper, 2006; Amnesty International, Somalia; Mark Bradbury, State-building,  Counterterrorism, and Licensing Humanitarianism in Somalia, Briefing Paper, Feinstein International Center, September 2010.  This has led to abductions, interrogations and threats against some humanitarian organisations and staff.

In addition, actual or perceived association with the TFG, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the US government has been used by Al-Shabaab to justify attacks against humanitarian workers. In a letter dated July 2009, the group warned humanitarian organisations against association with opposition forces, and accused several UN agencies of supporting the government, training its troops and raising funds for AMISOM. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Department for Safety and Security and UNPOS were expelled from Al-Shabaab areas. International Medical Corps (IMC) and CARE were expelled in 2008 for allegedly spying and gathering intelligence that led to the assassination of Al-Shabaab leader Sheikh Maalim Adam Ayro in a US air strike.

UN integration arrangements could potentially exacerbate or enhance the perception that humanitarian actors are not neutral, independent and impartial by strengthening the visible links between UN humanitarian agencies and UNPOS, through joint leadership, advocacy, programmes and presence. Since UNPOS is perceived by national actors and local populations as being aligned with the TFG and AMISOM, such structural arrangements may reinforce the perception that UN humanitarian agencies are part of the UN and international community’s broader (and contested) political effort in Somalia, and may increase the risk of attack or expulsion. In addition, the situation in Somalia is characterised by fear and uncertainty, rumours amongst the local population abound and unfounded accusations are often made against humanitarian actors. In this context, visibly linking UN humanitarian actors with the political mission could fuel accusations that humanitarian agencies are spying for the TFG and its allies. Some NGOs fear that any information they give to their UN agency partners may be used by UNPOS, and have threatened to dissociate themselves entirely from UN humanitarian coordination mechanisms if further structural arrangements are put in place. Somalia NGO Consortium, ‘A Joint NGO Statement on UN Integration in Somalia’, Nairobi, 2010.  In this context, highly visible UN integration arrangements are an additional risk factor in an already extremely difficult environment. Security officials in Nairobi support efforts to maintain a distinct identity for humanitarian actors as a means of mitigating the high levels of risk they face.


Highly visible UN integration arrangements can further associate UN humanitarian agencies and, to a lesser degree, their NGO partners with UNPOS. This is problematic from a humanitarian perspective since the UN Security Council has explicitly mandated UNPOS to support the TFG and AMISOM, and it is not therefore viewed as a neutral actor in Somalia. Whilst strategic integration is important in that it can ensure that the UN system as a whole works towards an agreed vision for Somalia, highly visible structural arrangements may mean that UN humanitarian actors, and to a lesser extent their partners, are also seen as partial, thereby raising their risk of being attacked.

These risks have been identified in Somalia, and only limited structural arrangements have been put in place to date. A separate OCHA office has been maintained and the RC/HC is also separated from the mission, allowing UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs to maintain a sufficient level of visible independence from UNPOS and its partners, the TFG and AMISOM. Reaching agreement on these arrangements has, however, taken time and resources, and efforts have been undermined at times on both sides by a lack of awareness of the content of the policy on UN integration, a limited understanding by some political staff of the operational relevance of humanitarian principles, limited buy-in from some UN humanitarian actors, a lack of transparency around decision-making and, at times, weak leadership and a lack of accountability for noncompliance with the policy.

It is also important not to overstate the impact of UN integration arrangements on the ability of humanitarian organisations to operate in accordance with humanitarian principles. The evidence suggests that the security of humanitarian workers is closely related to other factors in addition to integration, such as staff behaviour, the proximity and quality of aid programming, sources of funding, the level of engagement with the government and de facto authorities, the ideology of belligerent parties, the level of aid diversion and the level of coherence and coordination within the humanitarian system. Greater efforts should be directed at mitigating these other risks.

Equally, there is a need for greater efforts from UN political staff and the UN political leadership to build trust with UN humanitarian actors and their partners. This will require demonstrating that humanitarian concerns are taken into consideration and that there are, even in a context such as Somalia, potential benefits to increased coherence within the UN system, including improved context analysis to inform more appropriate humanitarian and political strategies and programmes. With regard to the security of humanitarian workers in particular, increased dialogue and sharing of analysis can support a deeper understanding of the security environment including the motives for attacks, key risk factors and changing threat levels, thereby allowing for more effective security management.

Samir Elhawary is a Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG). This article is based on an independent study commissioned by the UN Integration Steering Group and carried out by HPG and the Stimson Center: Victoria Metcalfe, Alison Giffen and Samir Elhawary, UN Integration and Humanitarian Space (London: ODI and the Stimson Center, 2011),


Comments are available for logged in members only.