It is Time to Learn the Unlearned Lessons in Somalia

It is Time to Learn the Unlearned Lessons in Somalia

University of Oxford. Department of International Development.

June 8th 2009.


Mr Chairman, friends, ladies and Gentlemen,

It is great to see you all, many familiar faces and I am always happy to catch up with former colleagues and chat about what is happening. I am also pleased to have met Professor Anderson having read some of his work. I did enjoy the Khat controversy, the book, not the substance itself. Perhaps I am the rare Somali who doesn’t inhale.

On another level, I am saddened by the situation in Somalia and that we are here to discuss yet again, how we can do something about possibly the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Let me start by reading a passage that I picked up this morning describing the situation;


Fighting has intensified in the past two weeks as insurgents attempt to push the government from the capital; hundreds have been killed. The main hospital of Mogadishu  (Madina) was reported full and around 60 patients were having to sleep under the trees outside. The hospital manager also confirmed that the medicine is running very low. UNHCR said that an estimated 63,000 people have been displaced since fighting erupted. The government versus the insurgents, will drag on for months, fuelled by outside support on both sides.


This report that vividly describes the current situation is a piece I picked up from my files. It is part of a situation analysis I myself wrote in May 2007 exactly 2 years ago.

This de ja vu is not unique; Somalia remained predictably complex for many years. Since the fall of the last functioning central government, we had and still do, crises of health, food, education, shelter and water and sanitation. On top of those, we also have political crises, crises of governance, conflict, invasions and proxy wars. Indeed a complex cocktail that produce predictable outcomes. Such as 1.3 Million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) that are refugees in their own country.

IDPs movements form what I call the displacement tails inside the country. These are well known routes and sites. It has become like semi-permanent havens of displacements for many years where IDPS make repeat settlements. In Mogadishu for example, where 1 million out of the 1.3 million IDP populations are found, IDP settlements are clustered around four areas.

(1)   Afgooye,  (2) Dharkenleey,  (3) Kaaraan, and  (4) Dayniile

Because IDPS follow specific clan zones we know the context in which IDPS were displaced and the locations where they will be forced to settle – giving us another very predictable situation that can be foreseen.

Conflict and displacements are not the only things that are following a routine in Somalia. The nature seems also to be following a regular pattern giving us natural disasters at regular intervals. Usually a drought and a flood alternately every two years, a cholera epidemic coinciding with currency inflation every year. And a tsunami as the one odd disaster out.

I will also argue that, the Humanitarian funding situation is also predictably generous.

According to OCHA’s Financial Tracking, donors almost gave all that was asked for in the last 10 years. And this year hopefully will not be different despite the Global financial crises.  We can at least say that the usual situation of scarce resources in relation to the scale was reversed in the last 4 years. Funding increased to 524% up from 2005 funding levels.

So what we have in Somalia is predictable political and security dynamics, expected and well identified coping reactions by people and a more reliable funding environment.

Why then we have not been able to reach the people with the life saving intervention they need? Despite heart-warming stories of achievements in press releases, the reality is that ordinary people in Somalia are no longer able to afford a basic living.

I am also going to confirm for you few things that you all know by now;

  1. Unfortunately, the security situation is not likely to get better in the immediate future. I am afraid that the same fate and curse also awaits this government.
  2. The needs of the people and their resilience to future shocks are likely to deteriorate precipitously.
  3. The paradoxical role of the UN – Political/development and Humanitarian emergency will not be understood well on the ground to the point that practical distinctions are made. The whole of the UN is now part of the politics in Somalia and are seen to be a fair game in the rhetoric as well as in the military targeting.
  4. The way the humanitarian community works, i.e. 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

How then, can we find a mass intervention that can reach each and every person?  Because that is precisely what is needed now

  • Can we find new ways to place Somalis in partnership with international supporters?  I am not talking about the usual partnership ‘Projectised top-down model’, but a co-responsibility and action on a broad scale.


  • Instead of projects that fail to be implemented due to the absence of international agencies, can we explore new approaches that use the private system as a distribution and targeting channel?


  • Can we for example subsidise food imports to reduce market prices and as such subsidise the cost of living for poor households across Somalia.


I believe that the private sector and the economy in Somalia as a whole are poorly understood.

Just this week, businesses in Somalia have issued itemised invoices to 2 million customers (just about seven hundred thousand more than the IDP populations in Somalia). What is more striking is that they seem to be getting their money despite these customers not having postal addresses.

Before I came here today, I called a guy I know from a telecommunication Company in Southern Somalia.  I asked him if they have customers in the IDP populations in Afgoye Corridor.  Yes was the answer, lots of them. But he also told me something more. He said they also have 133 agents in Afgoye corridor hard at work as we speak collecting payments for last month’s invoices. I have seen these agents at work. They are not collectors in Mafiosa sense, but rather people who can find customers whatever the weather – hence can gain greater access than the humanitarian community.

We know Money transfer companies provide service to millions having a massive coverage throughout Somalia.  They could potentially be an important partner in scaling up direct cash relief programmes.

And my favourite is the khat network that reaches every corner of Somalia every day of the year and doesn’t stop for wars, draught and flood, epidemics or currency inflation, Friday Prayers, Ramadan – anything really.  When I say my favourite is not the substance itself, but how they deliver.

While at UNICEF, I pondered about how we can make use of khat networks to vaccinate children for us. Of course I did not succeed. But I keep asking myself to this day, whether we forfeited an opportunity to reach 100% vaccination coverage possibly for the first time in Somalia.

I travelled quite a lot inside Somalia. To little villages and big towns. To far away rural areas and to remote coastal outposts. Wherever I go, I always managed to get a cold Coca-Cola. If they can store cool Coca-Cola, there is strong possibility they can handle vaccinations too.

I appreciate that you are working within Institutional interests and procedures. But more often we engage in the art of prescriptions defining ‘needs or problems’ as sole justification for our programmes. Our flexibility doesn’t usually extend to make the next steps which would outline various responses to a problem and the feasibility of each and then choose the best mix of an effective action that is feasible.

Of course, donors are also driven by internal process 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.

So what can we do in Somalia today?

  • First, we can start by recognising the strength of the private sector and to engage them fully we need to design programmes with the right economic incentives. That is when we can use the private sector not only for procurement but more importantly for targeted distribution.
  • We can also reduce the technical sophistication of our programmes and make sure we design programmes that can be implemented by local partners with very limited institutional capacity. – let them write their proposals, reports and management material in Somali language for example. Better still can we institutionalise oral system of submitting projects, proposals, reports and reviews? The technology in this day and age and the rich oral tradition of Somalis might make this model the most efficient. We will be saying to the community, we will not only ask you to learn our ways, but we are coming to learn yours.
  • Authorities like Puntland and Somaliland have achieved long years of relative stability. They have social agenda. We need to understand those agenda and their capacities. We do not need to overtax these authorities with an undoable welfare agenda – Instead we need to focus down to what they want to do and can do. Then let us try and help and finance them to do it. Of course with built in monitoring for quality and equity.
  • To counter the wave of the radicalisation in Somalia, we need to attract Islamic charities to take greater roles in delivery as well as advocacy. They are better placed than the UN to challenge radicalisation. They are better placed in working with religious leaders. And they are better placed to attract investments from Arab and the Islamic world.

All these I just described are not innovations. They are lessons we all see, but perhaps fail to learn. We need to learn how to learn lessons. Now is that time to learn those unlearned lessons in order to preserve the social and economic fabric of Somali life.

Thank You

Nuradin Dirie was speaking at University of Oxford, Department of International Development. June 8th 2009.

Nuradin Dirie is a former Presidential Candidate in Puntland. Prior to his Presidential bid, he served as Senior Advisor to the United Nations. He also coordinated humanitarian aid to Somalia, overseeing the operation following the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. For comments, Email:

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