Interview: OCHA Head of Office in Mogadishu

28 November, 2012
IDPs in the Wardhiglay area of Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: IRIN/Kate Holt
IDPs in the Wardhiglay area of Mogadishu, Somalia. Credit: IRIN/Kate Holt

Justin Brady, the head of OCHA’s office in Somalia, moved from Nairobi in Kenya to the Somali capital, Mogadishu, nearly six months ago in May 2012. Since the move, Somalia has seen the establishment of its first formal parliament in twenty years and the economy is improving, but nearly four million people still need urgent life-saving support, and there is continued conflict in some regions. Justin spoke to OCHA Online about the challenges of being the first agency head to work from Mogadishu and how life is changing for ordinary Somalis.

Q: When did you move to Mogadishu and what were the challenges and advantages of being based there?

A: I started to head the OCHA Somalia office in mid-May 2012 and I immediately established myself in Mogadishu. Being based in Somalia was essential for me. Working from inside Somalia, you always ‘think Somalia’, debate about how to have more impact, to adapt to changes... Even if somehow confined to the compound, having to use body armor and escorts to move around the city, you still breathe Somali air, absorb the culture, and engage much more easily with Somali civil society and all the actors on the ground.

I was enthusiastically welcomed by Somalis at all levels. Not only the national staff in Somalia and NGOs saw my presence as an encouragement and a huge sign of support, but also Somali counterparts in the Government defined it as an ‘essential step’.

Being the first Head of a UN Agency based in Mogadishu was not easy. At times, it was difficult to bring the realities of Somalia to the table in Nairobi [where some of the OCHA Somalia staff are still based] and likewise impress upon Somali counterparts the challenges faced by partners in Nairobi who could not be here given the limited space we have to house and operate. 

Q: Why was it important for OCHA to spearhead the movement to Mogadishu?

A: OCHA had the responsibility to take calculated risks and provide our partners an enabling environment. By being the first to deal with the challenges of managing from Mogadishu, we created that environment for all humanitarian Agencies who later moved and are planning to move to Somalia. Having first-hand experience of challenges and demands of the work in Somalia, we can now advise sister Agencies on how to hit the ground running once they arrive in Mogadishu and focus their attention on the beneficiaries and the work, rather than on processes and bureaucracy.

With the transition and the creation of a new Government in Somalia, it was essential for OCHA to be present at high-level political discussions and engage with all counterparts in Somalia to keep the humanitarian issues high on everybody’s agenda.

Despite the logistical challenges, I managed to travel to many areas in Somalia - though often through Nairobi- not only to Somaliland and Puntland, but also to many newly accessible areas of southern Somalia, such as Afgooye, which was by road from Mogadishu, Kismayo, Baidoa, Dhussamareeb, etc.

It is important to remember that this is not a ‘return’ or a ‘move’ to Mogadishu. In reality, national colleagues have been working for UN Agencies and NGOs for years in Mogadishu and for the past year or more, international staff have been present on a consistent basis.  What we are seeing is a change in numbers and level of representation.  But over the years when international presence was not feasible, humanitarians kept operations going in southern Somalia thanks to the commitment of Somali colleagues who risked their lives every day to help their own people. 

Q: What are the main developments in Somalia and Mogadishu in the last six months?

A: In the last few months, the economy of Mogadishu has been booming. The effects of the increased livelihoods opportunities amongst the displaced population can be seen, but not to the degree you would expect and the pressure on land, which causes evictions and high rents, even for modest shelters, far outweighs those gains. And of course security challenges remain. The conflict patterns have changed though.  There are new or resurgent conflicts to manage, between interest groups, clans, etc. Because of insecurity, while our freedom of movement improved, it is still limited and this is still one of my main frustrations.  All our movements are planned days in advance which limits our ability to respond to last minute requests for meetings or to visit a site due to a matter of urgency. Nonetheless, without our physical presence, many life-saving programmes could not be implemented at all.

The progress made in the political transition in Somalia is a very important factor for us. As I established myself in Mogadishu, the humanitarian community still did not know what the transition would mean, both in terms of security and of political commitment to humanitarian issues. Now we have counterparts to work with.  A good measure of any government is how it treats its most vulnerable and we hope this new government will see that as an important metric.

Q: How is your personal life in Mogadishu?

A: My personal life in Mogadishu is not easy, but it is what I chose and I am happy about my decision. I live far from my family, but my children and wife know why I am not there with them.

Sometimes it is difficult when you get back to your room after witnessing the squalor of the living conditions of tens of thousands of people living in the settlements in Mogadishu.  The warm shower and decent meal are privileges that few experience in Mogadishu.  It’s difficult to accept those if you don’t know in your heart you have done everything you could, I wouldn’t say ‘to make a difference’ but to move things forward and make a difference possible.  
Living together with other colleagues, sharing frustrations and happy moment both on the personal and professional level is wonderful. The danger of isolating yourself is very real. But there is a real sense of family here, regardless of function or level. 

But these challenges do not discourage my willingness to be here and assist.  This is a situation that doesn’t change overnight and it is a change that can only come from the Somalis themselves.  We can do our best by keeping that in mind. 

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