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Somalia: humanitarian crisis deepens amid growing insecurity

30-06-2008 Interview

Somalia is facing its worst crisis in a decade, with drought, fighting and spiralling food prices having a devastating effect on the population. Pascal Hundt, the ICRC's outgoing head of delegation in Somalia, describes the complexities of the enduring conflict, and the ICRC's role in helping the Somali people cope with a multitude of hardships.


  pdf fileRising prices for commodities in Somalia(165 kb)
Includes map depicting ICRC activities in Somalia

  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
  Pascal Hundt    

  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi/so-e-00334    
  Mudug region of central Somalia. Devastating drought: pastures have become barren in many places and water points have dried up. Herders are losing their animals.    

  ©ICRC/Mohamed Ali Nur/so-e-00330    
  Middle Shabelle region of Somalia. Displaced people waiting to receive a set of household items being distributed by Somali Red Crescent volunteers.    

  ©ICRC/Mohamed Ali Nur/so-e-00331    
  Middle Shabelle region. A Somali Red Crescent volunteer distributes sets of household items to displaced people.    

  ©ICRC/Mohamed Ali Nur/so-e-00332    
  Middle Shabelle region. Displaced people carrying sets of household items they just received from Somali Red Crescent volunteers.    

 You have been responsible for the Somalia delegation since April 2005. How has the crisis evolved since your arrival?  


Initially, we were dealing with a conflict that was mainly between clans and over resources. But over the last three and a half years, the conflict has become increasingly complex and polarized. Today, the concept of independent and neutral humanitarian action is hardly understood or accepted. Even humanitarian players are under pressure to take sides. A succession of severe droughts and floods, combined with external factors such as the global food crisis and consequent skyrocketing commodity prices in Mogadishu, has made the situation even worse. In addition, the drastic devaluation of the Somali shilling and hyperinflation of up to 600 per cent have severely restricted the purchasing power of the Somali people.


 The Somali people have been suffering for years now. How do they cope with the situation?  

It is far more difficult for them to cope today than it was a few years ago. The chronic nature of the crisis has exhausted their coping capacities. Hundreds of thousands of people are displaced within Somalia. The majority live in the open or in makeshift camps, far from any medical facilities, many have been wounded or killed. The growing insecurity and extremely fragile economy further jeopardize the survival of many rural communities.

There has been a massive exodus from the capital. Thousands of people are trying to flee the country, either to Kenya or to the Middle East and possibly Europe at a later stage. A large percentage of the population depends on external aid, which was not the case a few years ago. This is reflected in the overall efforts of the humanitarian community. Over the last few years there has been a substantial increase in the budgets and activities of humanitarian organizations, including the ICRC. 

 How has the ICRC's work in Somalia changed since 2005?  

Three and a half years ago we could work on a daily basis almost anywhere in central and southern Somalia. Now, the worsening security situation and the unpredictability of the conflict have made it a lot more difficult for us to maintain that level of presence on the ground. We are still present, but we have had to adapt our operations. In 2005, we were able to implement large-scale community projects whereas today we are mainly involved in carrying out major relief operations.


 Why does the ICRC not do any protection work in Somalia?  

A few years back we were planning to carry out protection activities such as visits to detainees, but today we have no choice but to restrict ourselves to essential relief work. The environment is simply not conducive to protection work. To be able to carry out regular visits to detainees we need to engage in constructive dialogue with the detaining authorities, but such contacts could be perceived as a sign of bias on the ICRC's part and lead to secu rity problems. We will start protection activities as soon as possible because the needs are there, but at the moment such activities are simply not feasible.


 How can a delegation come up with a strategy in a context like Somalia, which is so volatile and unpredictable?  

Firstly, we have to be extremely flexible and accept that in Somalia we cannot always do what we would like to. Secondly, we have to keep strengthening relations with local communities, with our Somali staff, with the Somali Red Crescent Society and with all parties to the conflict. It is only because of their trust and feedback on what we are doing that we are still able to work in Somalia. It is a question of being accountable to the Somali victims, to the beneficiaries, as well as to donors.



 What have been the biggest challenges for the ICRC in Somalia in the years you’ve spent there?  

The biggest challenge is without a doubt the lack of security. Insecurity in Somalia is a complex issue with a multitude of causes linked to the conflict, to ideology and to criminal activity. Over the last months and years, insecurity has significantly increased. Many colleagues from other humanitarian organizations have been kidnapped. People continue to be held against their will. Humanitarian organizations have been targeted, be it the United Nations agencies, Médecins Sans Frontières or other NGOs. It is very difficult to find the right balance between the risks we take and the impact we want to have. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that we do everything pos sible to mitigate the risk.

Another challenge is to convince everyone in Somalia that international humanitarian law and Somali customary law governing the conduct of warfare have to be respected. We have to engage those groups and individuals who have known nothing but conflict for the last 16 or 18 years. We have to convince them that there are certain rules to be respected during conflict. The fragmentation of the conflict and its various dimensions make it increasingly difficult to ensure that everyone involved knows and respects humanitarian law and principles.

A third challenge is the huge brain drain. It is more and more difficult to find qualified medical personnel or qualified engineers. It was already a challenge a few years ago to undertake complex rehabilitation work on water points or boreholes. Today it has become almost impossible to find reliable contractors with the required know-how.

 What is it that allows the ICRC to respond quickly and efficiently to the humanitarian needs in spite of the challenges?  

I think that overall we are well respected and well known. We benefit from people knowing our strict principles of neutrality and independence. We rely on regular contacts with most parties to the conflict, the experience and in-depth local knowledge of our Somali field officers and the Somali Red Crescent Society, our main partner in the field. And last but not least, we have been working in Somalia for many years.

There is still space to operate in Somalia, but I would like it to be much larger. Respect for humanitarian law is not only measured by the number of attacks against humanitarian organizations. We have to consider what is actually happening to every Somali every single day. Greater respect for humanitarian law and Somali customary law would prevent further sufferi ng. It would also minimize the risk of humanitarian aid being manipulated for political ends and therefore make it possible for all humanitarian organizations to do more.


 The Somalia delegation has been based in Nairobi since 1994. Are you planning to move back to Mogadishu at some point?  

Wherever we work, but particularly in Somalia, it is key for the ICRC to be as close as possible to the people, particularly the beneficiaries of our projects. But this does not depend on the location of the delegation. In other words, I think we are just as efficient, if not more, being based in Nairobi. We work closely with the Somali Red Crescent Society and our field officers, who are permanently based in Somalia. Our international staff carry out field missions in Somalia whenever possible.

 Do you think that the plight of the Somali people receives enough attention from the public, the media and the international community?  

Somalia is not really a forgotten conflict. If you want to find information on Somalia you can. The media and the international community are perfectly aware of what is going on. It is difficult for journalists to go there and report, but in general I have the feeling that people know about Somalia. However, to grab the attention of international public opinion is a challenge. We try to do everything possible to raise awareness of the plight of the Somali people.

Somalia is often considered as so complicated that it can only be dealt with by experts. The international community and the public have to understand that decisions on Somalia should be based not only on the advice of experts but also on the views of the Somali people: elders , women, religious leaders, community leaders and others. This might make it easier to understand what Somalia is all about and to find solutions.

 On a personal note, what is your fondest memory of working in Somalia?  

One of the most moving comments I received came during a discussion with a group of Somalis about their future. With a tone of resignation, they told me that “they had lost the key to their problems”. Nevertheless, one Somali woman added that as long as the ICRC was present in Somalia there was still light in the darkness. Her remark means a lot to me and we have to make sure that there is always enough power to keep that light burning.