Somalis Are Resilient but Face Daunting Humanitarian Situation

High-level UN humanitarian officials say that violence and instability make Somalia one of the most challenging environments when it comes to delivering aid, a reality that, however, does not question the laudable level of resilience demonstrated by Somalis over the years.

Philippe Lazzarini, the UN humanitarian and resident coordinator for Somalia, and Edem Wosornu, the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the country, spoke at IPI on May 6th of the high barriers that humanitarians encounter when assisting Somali civilians, all the while praising the perseverance of Somalis in their desire to restore political order in the country.

“Somalia is one of the most difficult contexts to deliver any type of assistance,” Mr. Lazzarini said. “It’s a very complex and fluid situation, and we have to admit that we will never completely grasp its reality.”

The East African country is currently undergoing a process of political and social restoration known as Vision 2016 which is poised to see Somalis holding democratic elections by September 2016, laying the foundations for a democratic, federal state.

Somalia has been in turmoil for the past 25 years, including a period from 1991 to 2012 with no central government. Recently, terrorist attacks by extremists from the al-Shabaab group have further exacerbated the security climate in the country, challenging both Somalis’ reconstruction efforts as well as international humanitarian aid delivery.

According to Ms. Wosornu, there are more than three million Somalis in need of humanitarian assistance, amounting to about a quarter of Somalia’s total population. Of the over 200,000 malnourished Somali children living in the country, Ms. Wosornu said that about 40,000 require medical attention in order to survive.

That said, both UN officials praised the high degree of resilience shown by Somalis in dealing with their situation over the years and praised their determination to build a stable and durable state. But this resilience, they said, needs to be accompanied by support from the international community, particularly in terms of funding for humanitarian programs.

Ms. Wosornu cited numbers from recent years, noting that humanitarian pledges are usually at least partially met. “This shows that people do care about Somalia, [whether it’s] the donor community, member states, or Somalis,” she said. “The key challenge… is to sustain attention” to the response.

The OCHA official also said that as challenges in the country change, so does the humanitarian effort. She recalled a recent episode in which helicopters had to rush assistance goods to an area that had only recently opened up, drawing some criticism for possibly violating humanitarian standards.

“We [knew] that the 30,000 children there [had] not been assisted; you know that they haven’t received polio vaccinations, so why wait and count them?” she said. “We found creative ways of delivering aid in Somalia without breaching or disrespecting our principles.”

But as humanitarian assistance adjusts, it needs to do so within certain boundaries, Mr. Lazzarini said. He mentioned the increasingly larger role played by NGOs and private actors, which are becoming more active when it comes to humanitarian assistance in Somalia, but sometimes pose problems of coordination. This is not a negative development in itself, he said, but it needs to be assessed cautiously.

“We have to make sure that the shift from agency-funded programs to international NGOs is based only on efficiency,” he warned, “and not on the fact that donors or member states do not want to cover some of the costs related to the safety of staff.”

Mr. Lazzarini and Ms. Wosornu also discussed the role played by African Union forces in stabilizing Somalia as well as the effects of regional conflicts on humanitarian delivery in the country.

The conversation was moderated by IPI Senior Adviser John Hirsch.

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