Issue 54 - Article 13

Working with Somali diaspora organisations in the UK

May 31, 2012
Saif Ullah, Muslim Charities Forum
A meeting of Somali NGOs in the UK

Diasporas play a vital role in supporting relatives and communities back home. Over the past 20 years Somalis from around the world have provided a significant amount of humanitarian and development assistance to communities in Somalia: a recent UN Development Programme (UNDP) survey estimated that between $130 million and $200m is given annually for these activities, while private remittances contribute an even greater share. Cash and Compassion: The Role of the Somali Diaspora in Relief, Development and Peace-Building’, UNDP, p. 4.  The Somali community in the UK is one of the largest and longest-established in Europe, with a number of charities providing direct assistance to Somalia. Ibid., p. 32.  However, as a result of clan and social tensions, limited organisational capacity, localised networks and general disunity, many Somalia-focused organisations have struggled to coordinate among themselves, despite being involved in similar types of relief work.

This article looks at the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF)’s efforts over the last year to bring these Somali community organisations together to develop a more united response to the relief and development needs of the Somali population. The authors reflect on the impact these discussions have had on the operations of Somali NGOs, and how lessons learned from this approach can be applied to working with diasporas from other countries.

The Somali diaspora in the UK

The 2011 Annual Population Survey estimates that there are 115,000 Somalis currently living in the UK. Somalis first arrived in Britain in substantial numbers in the late nineteenth century, with a second significant wave of immigration beginning during the Second World War. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Somalis came to the UK mainly as refugees and asylum-seekers following the gradual weakening and eventual collapse of the government of Somalia. Large Somali communities have been established in London, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester.

There are over 236 ‘Somali’ The names of these charities contain the word ‘Somali’.  charities officially registered with the Charity Commission in the UK. The majority focus on helping Somalis in the UK, with only a small proportion supporting work inside Somalia. There are also a number of unregistered charities and informal organisations which only work on relief and development issues within Somalia, either directly or through partners. However, a variety of factors limit the effectiveness of many of these organisations, including low levels of staffing and resources; dependence on small donations from the Somali community; inadequate policies and procedures; and no cooperation, communication or information sharing between organisations.

Somali organisations have struggled to compete for institutional funding. As Somali charities are scattered around the UK this has hindered networking and opportunities to cooperate with other like-minded organisations. Previous efforts to develop a more coherent nationwide voice, such as the ‘Somali Conference’ in 1997 and the ‘Somali Community Meeting’ in 2003, failed to forge any long-standing bonds between Somali communities, or create a representative body or forum. This may be partly because Somalis lack experience of a unified society, reflected in the political structures and organisations found in Somalia itself. The Somali Muslim Community in England: Understanding Muslim Ethnic Communities’, Department for Communities and Local Government, April 2009, p. 53.

Creating a discussion forum for Somali charities

In January 2011, MCF invited 20 Somali charities supporting relief and development in Somalia to take part in an initial meeting aimed at fostering dialogue and interaction. Fourteen of the 20 organisations invited came to the meeting. The purpose of the forum – to promote cooperation between charities conducting similar types of relief and development work in Somalia – was outlined and discussion centred on how to improve the quality and coverage of humanitarian response across Somalia. Participants were invited to discuss their individual organisational needs and work priorities and identify potential areas of collaboration and how these could be initiated or strengthened. These included capacity-building, networking with one another, agreeing mutual priorities, coordinating fundraising and donations and mapping exercises, agreeing to work across clan lines and administrative borders in Somalia, forging better links between Somali communities and government/international institutions, facilitating capacity-building of local NGOs in Somalia and establishing a body to represent Somali NGOs in the UK. Follow-up discussions were held with individual participants to consolidate the meeting’s findings. Attendees each identified what they valued most, the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Somali NGO sector and their areas of work within Somalia. Participants met again in March 2011, and responses were amalgamated and shared amongst the group. Exercises were also undertaken to promote cooperation and knowledge-sharing between organisations.

Outcomes of collaboration

ullah box 1At the end of July 2011, an umbrella organisation called the Somali Relief and Development Forum (SRDF) was founded and registered with the Charity Commission. Guided by a set of principles developed during the second meeting in March 2011 (see Box 1), the group focuses on delivering relief and development aid to communities in Somalia, promoting cooperation and collaboration between Somali NGOs in the UK and using their shared knowledge and understanding to serve areas most at risk. Through the relationships fostered by the group meetings, Somali NGOs have been able to organise a more coordinated response to the current drought crisis in Somalia. A joint fundraising appeal and awareness campaign entitled ‘iFundraise for Somalia’ was launched, while a significant number of projects conducted in conjunction with SRDF have aided relief and development operations on the ground (see Box 2).

ullah box 2

The Forum is becoming a trusted representative of Somali relief organisations and providing a unified voice for Somali diaspora communities. In recent months the organisation has been able to build bridges between more informal elements of the Somali diaspora in the UK, such as heads of mosques and youth groups, through meetings where attendees have been able to discuss some of the root causes of the ongoing crises in Somalia and ways to support civil society on the ground. Over 50 representatives from Somali-led mosques recently gathered in London to provide their views to the Forum on the situation in Somalia. This is indicative of the growing levels of trust in the organisation and of the increased willingness of Somalis to address homeland problems collectively. The SRDF has also been recognised by several media outlets as a valuable source of Somali opinion, particularly in the run-up to the international Somalia conference held in London in February 2012.

Following its success in bringing together Somali groups in the UK, in September 2011 the SRDF set up the Somali Humanitarian Operational Consortium (SHOC) in partnership with the MCF and the Humanitarian Forum. The SHOC involves 52 local development organisations in Somalia, with meetings primarily held in Mogadishu. In the more unstable areas of Somalia, particularly in the South and Central zones, INGOs have been forced to reduce their presence significantly in recent years as levels of violence and insecurity have escalated. The absence of an effective government has meant that local NGOs have had to provide health, education and welfare services. But despite having better access to the most vulnerable communities, many of these organisations have been unable to scale up their activities to meet the growing needs of the population. The aim of SHOC is to promote cooperation between NGOs at national and international level, regardless of clan affiliation or location, and to improve links between local and international NGOs.

Recent advocacy work by SRDF has focused on addressing the barriers to long-term development in Somalia. Parties involved in this work have included SRDF members and non-members, diaspora representatives and local NGOs from South Central Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland. A set of key messages aimed at reforming current approaches to development in the region was agreed by all participants. These include strengthening the legitimacy and capacity of Somali-led organisations to improve accountability to and reputation within the international community; depoliticising aid and developing means to deliver humanitarian and development assistance to Somali people in all areas; and a commitment to long-term development programmes by building human capital, enhancing disaster preparedness and improving health, transport and access to basic necessities. This joint stand is a unique achievement for the Somali community, and illustrates a willingness to embrace a more collective approach.


MCF’s experiences with Somali diaspora communities offer several lessons for organisations looking to work with other diasporas. Diaspora strengths include knowledge of and insight into issues affecting their home country, localised support and individual funding networks and potentially greater access to communities on the ground. But their effectiveness can be undermined by their isolation and their limited capacity to expand beyond a narrow range of activities. This may be particularly true for Muslim diasporas or those from countries that are still in conflict. MCF found this to be the case when working with diasporas from Libya and Yemen, as well as Somalia.  By working with diaspora organisations and providing them with the tools to better serve their communities back home – through linking them to other like-minded organisations, providing them with development opportunities to build up their own capacities or making them more visible outside of their traditional funding sources – it is possible to help them to become more effective.

Traditional rivalries between clans, mistrust and competition for funding have prevented Somali communities from developing long-standing partnerships with one another. Bringing representatives from these communities together and agreeing on guiding principles for engagement was the first step in tackling these challenges. The common desire to address the worsening humanitarian situation in Somalia provided an opening to engage with these communities, and the Forum has created a structure for collaboration and networking and enabled its members to develop clear objectives and activities. This approach helped to build Forum members’ trust in MCF’s long-term commitment to the initiative and its capacity to manage it. MCF and SRDF are currently investigating opportunities to provide training in communications, fundraising and governance for smaller Somali charities. The progress made by the Forum so far has also given MCF the confidence to promote collaboration among diaspora organisations from other countries, such as Yemen.

Saif Ullah is a researcher with the Muslim Charities Forum.


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