Innovative ways of providing humanitarian aid to Somalia
Speech by: Nuradin Dirie. The Houses of Parliament, Committee room 12.
Wednesday 7 September 2011
I am speaking to you today as someone who worked on both sides of the humanitarian / development and political divide in Somalia. As a humanitarian worker for local and international NGOs as well as the United nations, but also as a former official who represented Somali authorities receiving and coordinating aid for the people of Somalia. More importantly, I am speaking to you as a Somali who receives many early morning phone calls from Somalia asking for help and someone who as many Somalis who live in the Diaspora continuously donate significant part of their earnings every month for the last 20 years.
Working with the international community, I came to appreciate the Institutional interests and procedures humanitarian workers have to work under. I have also seen firsthand how donors are driven by internal processes and increasingly by globally decontextualised agenda. They are cautious and want to ensure their funds are not used to support terrorists or warlords to oppress the people. But these concerns, though legitimate they are, are in danger of making aid programmes not specific, less relevant and locally insensitive.
Over the years I got the opportunity to travel a lot inside Somalia. To little villages and big towns. To far away rural areas and to remote coastal outposts. I also continuously talk to thousands of people inside Somalia, – despite their diversity and varied hopes and dreams – one message comes across loud and clear. The people of Somalia are suffering from the dire consequences of war, drought, spiralling costs for basic foods, currency inflation and falling livestock prices.
Ordinary people are no longer able to afford a basic living. Mothers are sending their children to bed hungry. Men face the humiliation of not being able to provide for their dependents.
I am aware that the international community has collected technical data and initiated a wide range of assessments on these issues. However, it is critical to understand what this means in practical terms for the people of Somalia.
Just yesterday, Somali leaders in Mogadishu have concluded political meeting in which they agreed on a transitional road map. The solution to Somali’s complex humanitarian, security and governance problems most certainly lies in a political solution.
However, ordinary people cannot prioritize the peace process, governance or development. They can only think about their immediate needs: their families and friends and their duties to those around them. They are setting aside civic duty just to survive the crisis.
These actions will have profound implications for the establishment of peace, stability and normalcy in Somalia. No legitimate peace can be forged in Somalia if – in the hierarchy of needs – people are too busy dealing with their daily survival.
The Somali people understand and appreciate the support and assistance provided by international community over the past 20 years. They also understand that current operating conditions on the ground are not conducive for an increased International presence. However, without presence it is hard to be effective or to ensure accountability of assistance.
This is why it is imperative that we work together to find new ways to provide assistance, so that ordinary Somali households can make it through this dark period and emerge with the ability to participate and determine their collective futures.
We need to find new ways to place Somalis in partnership with international supporters. We need co-responsibility and action on a broad scale.
At a time like this, external interventions involving targeted projects with a high level of management and technical input are unlikely to have the reach or coverage required to respond to such a massive and widespread disaster.
What is needed is mass intervention that can reach each and every citizen. The security situation is not likely to get better in the immediate future – the needs of the people and their resilience to future shocks are likely to deteriorate precipitously.
Somalia is a food importing country. It always was, and it will probably be in the foreseeable future. Most people depend on the sustained production and sale of animal products to be able to afford the importation of basic food commodities.
Although an environment of conflict with weak local institutions, Somalia has some of the most dynamic and vibrant market systems in Africa.
Despite poor local production, the country is a net importer and even the most rural communities have entrepreneurs and traders. As soon as demand appears, food will be provided to the consumer. I mentioned earlier that I have travelled a lot inside Somalia. Wherever I went – small and big villages as well as in the middle of nowhere places – I was able to buy a cold Coca-Cola. The private sector in Somalia does not have access problems and they operate everywhere despite political and clan demographics.
In view of this I propose two specific initiatives to address the food security in Somalia and I hope it will also have relevance to countering African food crises.
First: because the current food crises does not only affect the poor but the majority of the population, the International community in partnership with Somali authorities, should help reduce the cost of the food business.
This could be done by sourcing inexpensive basic food commodities and subsidizing the importation of required volumes of basic food commodities to reach and subsidise the poor and most vulnerable. This assistance should be provided through direct contract with concomitant conditionalities imposed on commercial importers and the authorities.
- In return for such assistance, authorities should waive taxation on basic food commodities imported into the country and on all transportation of basic food commodities in-country. – this is not happening at the moment in Somalia because nascent authorities depend on heavy taxation on food in order to keep some level of stability.
- Members of the business community in Somalia have already indicated that they are prepared to substantially reduce the profit margins on food on a long term. They have also pledged that for an agreed critical period during this relief operation, it will recoup only operating costs with no aim of profit-making.
This is tangible assistance. In place of projects that fail to be implemented due to the absence of international agencies, these approaches use the private system as a distribution and targeting channel. This assistance will subsidise economical food imports to reduce market prices and subsidize the cost of living for poor households across Somalia.
The benefits of such an intervention would serve the citizens of Somalia and beyond – and help all drought and price affected communities in Somalia and the Somali regions of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya since these communities are very much interconnected.
Is there a safe and secure cash transfer system in Somalia?
A: Yes, the Hawala system (a local money transfer business) is safe, secure and reliable. It is capable of transferring large sums of money from abroad to Somalia, mostly in remittances from the Diaspora.
This means a large cash program would not overwhelm the Hawala’s current capacity. In communities where there is no Hawala, traders with local shops can be used. These agents pay beneficiaries and are refunded by implementing agencies after the transfer has been verified.
The Hawalas have been vetted by the US and European countries for compliance with anti-terrorism and money laundering laws. They have a vested interest in their core business, and rely on their ability to operate internationally. This translates to a compelling incentive for the Hawalas to mitigate risk by not engaging with certain groups.
Cash programs are unlikely to cause inflation if food commodities are available in sufficient quantities on the market. While the prices of local cereals have risen, the increase is largely due to two consecutive failed harvests and a very low level of food production. Rice imports are projected to continue increasing in coming months; it is therefore reasonable to assume that cash transfers would not result in market inflation.
Now is the time to act to preserve the social and economic fabric of Somali life: to make peace and civic participation feasible and to avoid the humiliation, desperation and depravity of hunger and famine.
Nuradin Dirie was speaking at Counting Food Insecurity in East Africa: an event organised by the Royal African Society in the Houses of the parliament. September 7th 2011.