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Somalia: Humanitarians listen more to community needs in drought response

19 May 2017
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Thirty-two-year-old Shukri Abdinasir* is a mother of 11 children aged between 4 months and 13 years old. Shukri arrived in Baidoa, in Somalia’s Bay Region, in mid-March after her husband died at home from complications with acute watery diarrhea (AWD)—an illness that has claimed the lives of nearly 700 people since January 2017.

Shukri needed to talk to someone about her fears, her new reality as a widow and her new role as the family’s breadwinner, so she confided in an aid worker who was part of a nutrition assessment mission. 

She was also extremely concerned about the health of her two youngest children who were malnourished and wasting away. A Nutrition Cluster partner gave Shukri a supply of Plumpy’nut, which is a ready-to-use therapeutic peanut paste to treat severe acute malnutrition. She shares this with her younger children when they cry at night due to hunger.

“I can hardly sleep at night since I arrived, I worry about my children,” Shukri explained to the aid worker.

The aid worker believes in the power of listening to communities and then tailoring programmes based on their needs.  Since the 2011 famine, which killed 260,000 people, she has witnessed tremendous efforts to increase community engagement and accountability to affected people in Somalia. “Sometimes humanitarian workers make assumptions of what people need. However, there is more than meets the eye, if only we listen,” she said. 

Channeling and tapping into community voices 

Humanitarian response efforts to the ongoing drought are well under way in Somalia, thanks to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and humanitarians’ active efforts to communicate better with affected people. Humanitarian organizations have rapidly increased the number of accountability and community-engagement initiatives compared with the 2011 response, as outlined in an October 2016 Secure Access to Volatile Environments Report. 

The majority of the feedback-and-complaint mechanisms set up by NGOs and UN agencies are hotlines and SMS platforms, as more than 80 per cent of Somalia’s population has access to a mobile phone. Call centres are also popular, as are help desks, community gatherings and suggestion boxes. Radio is an equally powerful tool, as Somalia is an oral society with low literacy levels. Radio stations have installed hotlines to receive feedback from listeners. 

But the main challenge now is finding a way to gather the information from all of these mechanisms into a central database in order to provide an overall picture of community voices, such as Shukri’s, so that the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) can make strategic decisions. For example, launching a public campaign on AWD prevention to reduce mortality rates. 

To achieve this, the HCT initiated a Common Feedback Project (CFP) in March to collate and analyse information from existing feedback mechanisms. This means asking organizations to provide the priority issues coming from their mechanisms. This information includes gender disparity and the location of the person making the complaint/providing feedback. Similar projects have successfully been piloted in Nepal, the Philippines and Yemen.

The CFP works with clusters, which are groups of humanitarian organizations (UN and non-UN) in the main sectors of humanitarian action, e.g., water, health and nutrition, to collect this information within the new Disaster Operations Center (DOC). The DOC was established to strengthen coordination through cluster teams meeting together physically, but also in their planning, response, performance monitoring, logistics and security arrangements. 

The CFP is also coordinating key messaging on priority areas such as AWD prevention and hygiene promotion to help communities chart their own recovery. These messages have been important in clearing misconceptions on how AWD is transmitted. 

Cluster leads are speaking on the humanitarian radio station Radio Ergo to discuss the response, deliver key messages and answer communities’ questions. They are also harmonizing their own internal feedback-and-complaints mechanisms. The Nutrition Cluster is implementing an integrated online platform where partners engage with respondents, log findings, and manage interactive voice responses, community interaction and a hotline. This is in addition to existing and ongoing initiatives in nutrition accountability to affected people. 

“This has been a great initiative in making the cluster function better,” said Samson Desie, the Nutrition Cluster Lead. “Communities have a wealth of experience and solutions to some of their own challenges, and our role is to facilitate their solutions and help them as much as we can.” 
Justin Brady, the OCHA Somalia Head of Office, said: “The CFP is a great initiative, and I am happy we are rolling it out in Somalia, a complex emergency that needs to listen more to the people we serve. Communities have solutions to their own challenges and we need to tap more into those.” 

Photos: Giles Clarke/Getty Images Reportage

Not her real name