The HC Interview: Somalia

11 November, 2011
Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden (right), speaks to people displaced by the drought. Credit: OCHA
Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden (right), speaks to people displaced by the drought. Credit: OCHA

Three years after Mark Bowden first arrived in Somalia, he finds himself at the centre of the deepest and most acute humanitarian emergency in the world. On 20 July, a famine was declared in large parts of the south, and the situation has continued to deteriorate.

Tens of thousands of people have died, millions of children are malnourished, and 750, 000 people risk death over the coming months. Countrywide, four million people urgently need help.

An intensifying conflict has made it particularly difficult for humanitarian organizations to get assistance to people in need. And since the beginning of the month, Somalis have faced rising hardship due to the effects of the deyr rains.

Despite these challenges, aid agencies have scaled up their activities. Around 2.2 million people have now received food assistance, up from about 1.3 million people in August.

A little more than 100 days after famine was officially declared, Mr. Bowden spoke about the challenges ahead.

Q: What’s the current humanitarian situation in Somalia?

A: Somalia is going through its most critical period in many years.  It faces famine in major parts of the country, and very acute food shortages in other parts.

In Mogadishu, a large number of IDPs (internally displaced) have flooded in to town, putting pressure on services. In the famine areas, we’re working in a race against time to get assistance, particularly food, to people in crisis.

Q: 100 days since the declaration of famine in parts of Somalia, what’s been achieved?

A:  A great deal’s been achieved. After a slow start, there’s been a steady increase in the levels of food going in to the famine areas. We’re now seeing other schemes, such as food voucher schemes and cash schemes, beginning to take place. I’m very hopeful that during November we will see an even larger increase in the level of assistance.

Q: How does the conflict affect humanitarian operations?

A: Conflict always affects people. Somalia’s civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict and that’s a clear problem. [It also] makes it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to work. There are more restrictions on their movement, and everybody is suspicious. The more prolonged the conflict, the worse the impact will be.

Q: What impact do recent Kenyan military activities have on the situation?

A: Any increase in military activity is very worrying. Military operations can affect agricultural production, and will also have an impact on cross-border (aid) operations. If it's a prolonged operation, it will start to have a major impact on the capacity to distribute food to the people most affected by famine.

Q: Somalia’s deyr – or rainy season – has begun. Is this a good thing?

A: The rainy season is important for a number of reasons. It means we should be getting a harvest in January, which will make a difference. One of the major challenges is to get seeds into the main growing areas. That’s started to happen. What we need to ensure now is that there are people who will do the planting.

But the rains also bring bad news, in that they bring disease. The major risk is malaria, which in the 1992 crisis was the big killer.

Q: There’s been quite an increase in funding for Somalia – is that a reflection of growing international engagement?

A: Yes, I think there has been a major international response. In many places the plight of the Somali population has captured the public’s imagination. In the UK, where I come from, they’ve had one of the largest ever appeals for the Horn of Africa. The public at large understand that, even in times of economic recession, even if there’s a counter-terrorist insurgency taking place, you have to stop suffering. A number of governments, new donors amongst them, have stepped up to the mark. I think it’s our job now to assure people that assistance is getting through.

Q: What about the Somalis themselves?

A: I think Somali communities have really rallied around for this crisis. The role of the Somali diaspora has been critical. Authorities across the country have gradually become not just more engaged, but more organized in their response and approach. If we can maintain their commitment, then I think we, as international workers, can make a difference.

Q: In an interview three years ago, you described the humanitarian situation in Somalia as the most complex crisis in the world. How would you describe it now?

A: It has the same complexity! It’s the depth of the crisis that has increased. We now have not just one of the world’s most complex crises, we have probably have the deepest and most acute crisis in the world.

Q: How do you work around the lack of access?

A: Sometimes you need to find new agents to assist, by which I mean not just aid organizations but the commercial sector - who can get to places that the rest of us can’t.

Q: How would you compare this to other crises you have dealt with?

A: One thing in common is that we shouldn’t rely on humanitarian assistance alone. The other thing I’ve learnt over the years is [the importance of] providing people with hope. When people give up hope, we have a far worse crisis on our hands.

Q: What drives you to do what you do?

A: Well, I have a basic fondness for Somalia! It has people who are very motivating, resourceful, and unique in the way that they tackle issues. I do this sort of work because of the feeling that you can make a real difference. If I felt I couldn’t make a difference, I wouldn’t carry on doing it.


Reporting by Ari Gaitanis.

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