updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

Preventing famine in Somalia: An urgent and dangerous balancing act

  • Published in Somalia

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Mohamud Mohamed approached us while trying to fetch water from the well around which he and thousands more had congregated in desperation. He spoke with passion when he told us that he has never seen a drought like this before. The lack of water has culled his family’s herd of goats from 360 to 90, and he and his boy frequently go to bed without dinner.


“One moment you have your animals, the next they are gone,” he said.


Mohamud is one of the more than 6 million people in Somalia in severe need of food, water, shelter and health care this year. But you need to talk to only a few more displaced persons like him to realize all their stories are very much alike.


Somalia is facing the worst drought since the 2011 famine. Only six years ago, an estimated 260,000 people died in Somalia during a crippling hunger crisis exacerbated by a mix of drought and conflict. Equally alarming, the international community’s tardy and rushed aid response saw too much of its assistance failing to reach and support those most in need.


Today drought and hunger are again devastating Somali families while the conflict continues unabated. Millions of lives are at risk and the international community is frantically mobilizing again for the response. But has the international aid system learned from Somalia’s 2011 famine? Is our 2017 going to be a déjà vu of 2011?


Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries and one of the most challenging to work in. Operating here imposes huge stress on organisations and staff, as it requires striking a shifting balance between urgent and sustained responses in a volatile and complex environment. A combination of factors including lack of funding, security incidents, or massive diversion of aid have forced many organizations to abandon the country over the past decades, or obliged those remaining to limit their operations to specific areas and operate remotely, often compromising humanitarian principles and accountability.


The ICRC has been working in Somalia since the mid-1980s. Over the years, it has refined a dual strategy aimed at responding both to the long-term effects of protracted conflict through programs geared towards livelihoods and resilience, while at the same time responding to recurrent emergencies generated by climate (drought and floods), epidemics (cholera and measles) and violence (displacement and weapon wounded due to armed clashes).


Another key element for an effective and wide-ranging response is ICRC’s principled approach. The institution observes strict independence and neutrality. On this basis, it establishes a dialogue with all parties to the conflict, thus gaining access to persons living in areas inaccessible to many others, always in accordance with its working standards, making no compromises in return for access or security.


ICRC and SRCS (Somali Red Crescent Society) teams work on the ground. We employ full-time staff year-round at many offices throughout the country. We manage the security of our staff ourselves. And, most importantly, the ICRC keeps full control of the humanitarian chain from A to Z: from assessment of needs to identification of beneficiaries; from purchase of goods to transportation; from delivery of relief to post-distribution monitoring, the ICRC and the SRCS do it all directly with their own teams of experts. No intermediaries, no third-parties.


The embedded capacity of emergency response, principled stance, and full control of the project cycle gives the ICRC the added values of timeliness and access or, in other words, the ability to respond in a few days to the needs in isolated and difficult-to-access rural areas, thus helping prevent famine and displacement. Already this year we have delivered humanitarian assistance to over 900,000 people in drought-stricken communities in Somalia.


But the needs are huge and beyond the capacity of any humanitarian organization. More has to be done and quickly, particularly in the face of what is shaping up as possibly yet another failed rainy season which will add pressure to families’ already very fragile coping mechanisms. Even if the rains come, the nutritional condition of the people and their livestock will take months to recover.


The humanitarian community must work as fast as it can to help the 6 million people in need, including the 360,000 acutely malnourished children, in a way that assistance reaches those who really need it, wherever they are, and as soon and possible. The world knew the 2011 famine disaster was approaching and did not work fast and efficiently enough to prevent it. The last thing Mohamud wants to discover in 2017 is that we did not learn the lessons of 2011.