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SOMALIA: IRIN interview with Mark Bowden, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator

NAIROBI, 29 August 2008 (IRIN) - After almost two decades of civil war and anarchy, Somalia is now suffering one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 3.2 million people, almost half the population, in need of assistance. To make matters worse because of security problems, killing and kidnappings of relief workers, access to those in need has become almost impossible. IRIN talked to Mark Bowden, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, UNDP Resident Representative and Designated Official for Somalia, about how he now sees the humanitarian situation evolving.

Question: What is your assessment of the current humanitarian situation in Somalia?

A: I think Somalia is moving rather more rapidly than people had expected into an increasingly serious crisis. The main elements of this crisis are: the drought, which has now extended and the news we have is that the effects of the drought are now far worse than before. The consequences, I think will be very serious across the whole of Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland. The issue of food prices is a major problem facing Somalia, and I think Somalia has been worse hit than most other countries in the world, because it’s been coupled with the collapse of the Somali shilling. This means we are now looking at major groups of people in towns as well as in the countryside that are facing extreme poverty as a result of the food price rises.

On top of that we have the continuing instability in the country, which is leading to massive displacement, people having to leave their homes, living in unsatisfactory and highly dangerous shelters and environments. So, Somalia is really at a stage where the situation is increasingly acute and a cause for a major concern.

Q: What would you say are some of the main challenges to humanitarian response in the country?

A: The number one challenge has to be security. The problem that we face is that the most acute humanitarian crisis is in central and southern Somalia and that is where most of the security problems exist. But, it is a very complicated security picture that challenges the humanitarian community. We have had abductions of key humanitarian staff, people like Keynaan [Hassan Mohammed Ali, head of UNHCR's office in the Somali capital of Mogadishu], Somali national staff for all agencies who have been involved in humanitarian activities have been targeted and this creates a very difficult environment in which to carry out humanitarian operation. But I should say we don’t have a choice but to continue given the gravity of the crisis and to try and do more in response to Somalia's needs.

Q. What is the UN doing to try to increase access to vulnerable populations across the country? For example are you in touch with Al Shabaab and other groups to defend humanitarian access?

A: I think we are doing a lot to increase access and we have reassurances from all groups … from many commanders from all the different groups involved in Somalia. What really matters is what happens on the ground and in the locality and that is where we need to have more support.

Q: How concerned are you that civilians are not being protected in this new upswing in conflict, particularly in the last couple of months? What can be done to improve their protection?

A: I am very concerned about the protection of civilians, because civilians have experienced the worst of the conflict and it is a sad reflection on any society that we aren’t able to provide the protection for people that really need it. I am afraid that it is a very difficult environment in which to provide protection. There is more work going on in terms of human rights monitoring by a number of agencies and organisations. Locally, there are some very courageous organisations undertaking human rights reporting and monitoring on the ground.

We also need to have better access, as an international community, to provide the levels of protection that are needed in Somalia. This remains a problem.

Q. Is the UN getting the requisite cooperation from the TFG and the Ethiopians?

A: The UN gets cooperation from the TFG in particular, along with the ARS [Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia]. They committed themselves to access. The Djibouti agreement makes it clear that there are commitments to providing support and access. I think the problems are more in actually what they are able to provide in terms of support. So it is not that the commitment is not there, it is more the capacity to provide support is limited.

Q: We have seen a spike in the violence, particularly in Mogadishu, since the signing of the Djibouti agreement. How do you explain that, if both sides are committed?

A: I think it comes down to what the TFG and ARS actually control…Essentially the problem is there are groups that are unhappy with the agreement, did not participate in it and also may wish to undermine the process by acts of violence. What strikes me as a humanitarian, outside the political process, is that the humanitarian organisations are not part of the political process. What saddens us is that humanitarian workers have been attacked as part of the violence in Mogadishu. Mogadishu is a place where there is more need than many other places but the difficulties of getting assistance there are greater than anywhere else. What we would like is far better recognition that people engaged in providing humanitarian aid are outside the political process and just trying to find ways of helping to meet the needs of the population in Mogadishu, at a time when they above all others need it.

Photo: Farhan Lafoole/IRIN
Asha Mohamed, a 35 year-old mother of 5, who lost her husband and two children in Mogadishu, pictured with two of her children in an IDP camp in Kismayo, southern Somalia
Q: Would it be fair to say, because of the situation in the country, there is virtually no international humanitarian presence in Somalia?

A: No. It is fair to say that. There is a considerable international humanitarian presence in the country, but it is there in the same way as it used to be because of the particular security constraints we have. We have at any one time in Somalia over 150 international staff on any one day. There are also many more Somalis working for international organisations providing humanitarian assistance across Somalia. Where it is difficult to maintain a presence is in places such as Mogadishu, where it has now become almost impossible, not just for the UN, but for anybody trying to undertake humanitarian activities and work there effectively. But it is still possible. Some things are happening. There is a major feeding programme taking place from WFP [the UN World Food Programme]. There are nutrition programmes taking place, but what we need is a far better acceptance of the humanitarian task of the international community, to be able to expand that presence.

Q: How have donors responded to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia? Is the response satisfactory?

A: We are working very hard at the moment to increase the response. At the moment only 40% of the Consolidated Appeal, the mechanism we have for raising money for Somalia, has been met. We are going back to donors to say that there needs to be more. For the moment the food pipeline coming into Somalia is secure. We have committed to providing food for 3.2 million Somalis...

The real gaps in assistance are in the areas of health and nutrition where a lot more needs to be done. I think one of the great tragedies in Somalia is the poor access to health services, which I know makes everybody feel very insecure and unsafe for the future of their children. Again, having said that, we are also able to carry out major immunisation programmes across the whole of Somalia to provide some protection.

Q: There has been upsurge in piracy off the coast of Somalia. Are you concerned that it may affect your ability to deliver food aid and does it have anything to do with funding the insurgency?

A: We are concerned about piracy. It is of a particular concern in terms of the fact that just the reputation that Somalia has now for piracy means that shipping companies are very concerned about even sending ships with food into the country. That is a problem. What it has done is that those companies that are willing to send their ships in are charging far higher prices than before. So, it is making the whole relief effort a lot more expensive. It is a very serious problem and could interrupt the food pipeline. Now, whether it is going to the insurgency or not I have no knowledge or understanding of that at the moment. All I would say is that the amounts of money that are involved are very large and mean that the pirates are now better equipped than ever before and the challenges in addressing this are much more difficult. It is something that the international community is going to have to address. It is also an issue that needs to be addressed very strongly by the government of Puntland and others who feel at the moment, from my discussions with them, that the situation is beyond their control.

Q: You have been in other crises. How would you rate what is currently happening in Somalia as compared to others?

A: Well, I think Somalia is, probably, the most complex crisis we are dealing with in the world at the moment. Partly, because it has gone on for so long, and it is becoming more difficult to find ways of ensuring access and partly because there are so many dimensions to the crisis: not just the drought, not just food price rises but also the instability. It is a major challenge to the international community, one where we also keep having to reassure people that it is possible to work in Somalia, and not only possible but critical to do so at this stage. We all, and I think all Somalis, have to face the challenge, [and counter the] feeling that because it is so complicated, there is nothing that can be done. That in a sense is our other big challenge, to try and reassure the people that are providing the funding for assistance, that it is possible to do things and meet this crisis.

Q: Going partly to protection, in August alone there were a number of incidents where civilians, particularly displaced persons, were the victims. There was a deafening silence from the international community. How is it possible to feed people when you can’t protect them in places of supposed refuge.

A: You have raised a point that concerns us all. I think you still have to try and feed people. Everybody I know from the humanitarian side is worried about the inability to protect the civilian population. That is why in the end the solutions are political. The United Nations has made statements about some of these issues. The Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes made a strong statement about the levels of displacement in Beletwyene [central Somalia] and the impact of the disproportionate use of force by those involved in the fighting. We do try and draw attention to these issues as they occur. Without the access to the area it is difficult to do anything more than express concern. I am afraid the solutions lie at the end of the day in the political process and with the politicians to operate within the confines of recognised international humanitarian and human rights law.

Q: Anything you would like to add?

A: What I would like to say is that the UN humanitarian agencies express their deep concern for the suffering that people are going through at the moment and recognise the severity of the crisis. We are working very hard to increase our capacity to respond. But above all what we need is the support of Somalis, at the community level, to ensure that we can work together to bring assistance through to those areas where it is most needed. This has to be a joint effort, not just the international community to be willing to provide assistance but communities working the UN and others to ensure that assistance can be made available at this critical time in Somalia.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs



Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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