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Somalia: 'delivering the goods' despite increasingly volatile climate

23-04-2008 Interview

The situation in Somalia is growing steadily worse, with increasing violence having caused a mass exodus from Mogadishu. Daniel Gagnon, the ICRC's economic security delegate in Somalia, describes the plight of the beleaguered Somali people, and what the ICRC is doing to help.

  ©ICRC/D. Gagnon    
  Galgaduud region, central Somalia. Mother and child displaced from Mogadishu following mass exodus in November 2007.    
  ©ICRC/D. Gagnon    
  Galgaduud region, central Somalia. Fleeing families arrive virtually barehanded after having been stripped of their meagre belongings on the road between Mogadishu and their final destination.    
  ©ICRC/D. Gagnon    
  Galgaduud region, central Somalia. Water is becoming more and more scarce obliging internally displaced people (IDPs) to share meagre resources with livestock. ICRC is currently distributing massive amounts of drinking water to the Galgaduud and Muduug regions to IDPs and host communities.    
  ©ICRC/D. Gagnon    
  Galgaduud region, central Somalia. Families of IDPs are for the most part female-led. In most cases the men stay behind to safeguard property and assets.    
  Daniel Gagnon    
     What is the humanitarian situation in Somalia today?  

The situation is growing more unpredictable and volatile with each passing week. In Mogadishu, the heavy death toll, destruction of property, looting and physical aggressions have contributed to the persistent general insecurity. The city, which normally has a population of approx imately one million inhabitants, has experienced a mass exodus – between 550,000 and 650,000 people have left for the outskirts of their respective tribal lands in the different regions of south-central Somalia.

We have limited access due to the deterioration of the security environment but we continue to work thanks to our remote control modus operandi. This means that we are effectively working through a network of Somali field officers who send us information and organize the distribution of assistance.

In addition to the general strife and conflict people are now faced with another prolonged drought. This is said to be a third consecutive year without rains, mainly in south and central Somalia. These people depend mainly on livestock rearing for their livelihood. The drought is naturally causing them to lose animals – they cannot water the animals, there are no grazing pastures, no range land. It is truly catastrophic.

Some people tend to believe that if it does not rain in April-May, which, along with March is the due period for the long rain season, we should expect a grave humanitarian crisis where not only animals die, but people as well, due to lack of food and water.



 Why do you think the situation is getting worse?  


Indeed, it is getting worse. I can only compare it with the period of 19 months that I was present in the country and had more humanitarian space to work in. Somalia is divided by region and then by district. We, as delegates, could access many more districts at the beginning of this mission (19 months ago), than we can at the moment. The reason for this is that there have been splinter groups battling with each other and internal conflict amongst the Somali people themselves in the struggle for natural resources. This has caused great unpredictability with regard to our field trips due to security concerns.

We continue to maintain contact with all relevant stakeholders in Somalia, though in a rapidly changing environment new actors have emerged with whom constructive dialogue needs to be strengthened. We do sometimes make progress thanks to the knowledge and networking of the on-site field officer, but it is always with extreme caution that we proceed to the field. We have our own means of transport with ICRC aircraft. We notify the relevant authorities, but it is never 100 per cent sure that we will arrive in the field, that is to say that the field trip can be cancelled at the last minute due to a security incident or concern.


 How do displaced people cope?  

Frankly, with extreme difficulty. The trend for displacement seems to be, particularly with the Mogadishu exodus, mostly female-headed households, with young children and teenagers, manage to escape. Most of them are not accompanied by the breadwinner of the family.

There are women staying in camps that are not really camps, but rather settlements, having taken nothing with them, are almost nothing, because they are looted progressively as they go through different'checkpoints'. The people at the checkpoints tend to demand money and belongings in exchange for passage. When these women arrive at their destination they come virtually barehanded. They live in dire conditions, under the sun, under the trees when there are some, with no access to water or food.

This is where the ICRC comes in – ver y focused on the pure relief aspect of bringing in nonfood items, essential household items, blankets, jerrycans, plastic sheeting, children's clothes for firsthand relief to alleviate suffering. When needs be, but only as a last resort, the ICRC provides food commodities, when the World Food Programme (WFP) or CARE International may not or cannot handle the case, because they don't have access.

At this stage we have already engaged our full annual budget for 35,000 families for the first three months of the year. We have also distributed food in the Puntland area to 16,000 homes upon agreement with the WFP who did not wish to access this zone. This assistance was carried out by ICRC national staff living in Somalia. As expatriate staff remain on standby in Nairobi, national staff continue to provide emergency assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Somalia.



 What needs to be done to improve the situation?  

The ICRC is doing all that it can do to improve the situation. We have national staff (field officers) carrying out assistance on the ground who have been with the ICRC between two and 14 years. They know the mandate. Each field officer is working in his respective clan/sub-clan area and thus is well-respected. The ICRC is also respected because we have a reputation for delivering the goods following assessments. The most common complaint from representatives of internally displaced people (IDP) and government is that humanitarian agencies do too many assessments and rarely deliver, and when they do deliver, they are late.

The ICRC's reputation for delivering the goods is a strong credential for the organization. Wherever we have traveled in Somalia, we have received only thanks for our commitment, but also for our promptitude in delivering the goods in due time.