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Somalia faces yet another severe drought that is threatening the country with famine if immediate action is not taken. The Gu and Dayr rainy seasons have been short, significantly reducing crop production and devastating livestock. Flash floods and locust infestations have contributed to crop destruction nationwide. Somalia’s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) has reported that seven million people are suffering from food insecurity with another 2.9 million in food crisis. UN agencies estimate the US$1.2 billion is needed to support the affected communities.

For the past three decades, haunting images of malnourished children and women have hit the airwaves to tug at the heartstrings of taxpayers in donor countries in an effort to increase giving. This is the sad reality; an emergency is declared, followed by a call for billions of dollars in fundraising.

Somalia is not alone in enduring this inhumane and degrading approach to supporting fragile low-income countries. Across the continent, images of starving African children have given birth to a global aid industry that is immoral and unjust. In these unprecedented times, as a global pandemic rages, with severe ramifications for economies throughout the world, many Africans have been awakened by the global outcry for justice and equity led by the Black Lives Matter movement. It has become a moral, political, and economic imperative to examine the impact of humanitarian interventions in the Global South that are often rooted in neo-colonialism and imperial dominance. This article focuses on the protracted humanitarian crisis in Somalia as a case study of failed government leadership and an aid system that has forgotten its mission.

Decades of climate crises and no relief in sight

The humanitarian crisis in Somalia has always been about water — either too much of it or not enough. The country’s economy is largely driven by the 60 per cent of the population that are agro-pastoralists and whose livelihoods have been wiped out by cyclical environmental calamities. Multiple droughts and famine have displaced three million people in the last five decades.

In 1973, “Daba-dheer” — the long-tailed drought — hit the northern region of the country, causing severe food shortages. Over 100,000 families were relocated to the Lower Shabelle and Juba regions by the military government of Siad Barre.

The humanitarian crisis in Somalia has always been about water — either too much of it or not enough.

In 1991-1992, as the civil war raged, famine conditions led the US government to send military airlifts of food to alleviate the suffering of millions. Despite these efforts, 300,000 people died during that period.

In 2011, the world woke up to images of millions of starving Somali children as the country was struck by yet another famine that took the lives of over 260,000 people, half of whom were children under five. In 2016-17, the country again went through another severe drought that reduced crop production and wiped out vital livestock.

Recent data from various UN agencies shows that up to 50 per cent of Somalia’s population, approximately 7.7 million people, are food insecure. This staggering statistic is a 30 per cent increase from last year. Although conflict and political instability are major contributors to food insecurity, droughts, floods, and environmental degradation have had a far greater and deadlier impact. As the climate emergency agenda now grabs our attention globally (and rightly so), it must be recalled that Somalia has endured climate disasters for over five decades.

Up to 50 per cent of Somalia’s population, approximately 7.7 million people, are food insecure.

And while in the past Somalia’s funding partners have responded to the humanitarian crises without addressing the root cause — climate change — we are now seeing a swift shift in language, where “climate solutions” are evoked to align with the billions committed at COP26 to support developing countries to adapt and mitigate climate change.

The humanitarian paradox

Somalia remains the world’s longest-running humanitarian mission, with billions of dollars spent annually, and there are some fundamental questions that must be raised as the climate crisis moves on to the global stage. Why have successive Somali governments been unable to tackle the most serious humanitarian crises? Why are we not realizing modest improvements but instead continue to see a dramatic increase in the humanitarian caseload as more aid is pumped into the system? How long can this state of emergency be sustained? Where is the return on investment for these dollars? Where is the accountability? What reforms are needed in the current structure to bring about real and tangible changes?

The water problem

While Somalis are nomadic agro-pastoralists accustomed to seasonal mobility, the extreme changes in the weather patterns have left most of the landmass uninhabitable. Rainy seasons have become extremely irregular and the rains minimal, while flash floods devastate towns along major rivers. The Gu rains have worsened conditions in human settlements and displaced tens of thousands in the critically dense urban settlements of Beledweyne and Jowhar along the Shabelle River. The problem is just as critical along the Jubba River where the poor floodwater infrastructure results in massive crop destruction.

Flooding and drought are not new to Somalia. These natural disasters have plagued the country for decades yet those in charge of Somalia, both the government and its UN partners, have long neglected addressing the central problem of Somalia’s humanitarian crises — water management.

The failure to manage water has devastated the country’s capacity for self-sufficiency. This negligence is partly responsible for the deaths of millions of Somalis from starvation and for the internal displacement of a fifth of the country’s population. Living conditions in the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps are by any standards some of the most abhorrent and inhumane. Mogadishu is the epicentre of this internal displacement of populations and hosts close to a million IDPs. Baidoa, Kismayo, and Bosaaso also host large displaced populations.

Failed government leadership

While natural disasters have caused a number of problems in Somalia, the real crisis is failed leadership across all levels of government. At the heart of the suffering of the Somali people is a defunct leadership. According to the World Bank, over 70 per cent of Somalis earn less than two dollars a day, with an unemployment rate of 80 per cent. Somalis under 35 years old make up two-thirds of the population, giving the country great potential to accelerate recovery and development with the right leadership in place.

The country’s abundant natural resources — including the longest coastline in Africa and large oil reserves — remain untapped due to inadequate human resource development and internal conflict. While the exploitation of these untapped natural resources could be a game changer, the country’s potential will undoubtedly be crushed by a conscienceless leadership.

Callous political elites have assembled for the sole purpose of chasing power and have shown very little regard for the majority whom they have condemned to a life of misery. Greed and corruption keep the country in a state of perpetual insecurity. Year after year, the country features at the top of global corruption indices. The looting of public assets and resources has been normalized and impunity reigns supreme. Those who have taken the most from the poor are rewarded by the system with ever-higher office.

Poor governance and weak institutions led by ego-driven male politicians are the source of the ongoing political, security, and humanitarian crises. The top leadership and their ministers are picked based on loyalty rather than competence. Appointing weakest-link personalities is the norm in order to curtail any criticism of the government. Lawmakers who are ill-equipped to manage the affairs of an extremely fragile post-conflict country are selected by a clan system that has proven to be inadequate and corrupt. Year after year, poorly resourced government institutions struggle to implement effective planning and coordination mechanisms and fail to meet the complex and serious challenges faced by the country. Inept leadership, mismanagement of key portfolios, and the lack of accountability within government also give humanitarian and development partners free reign to do as they see fit.

Callous political elites have assembled for the sole purpose of chasing power and have shown very little regard for the majority whom they have condemned to a life of misery.

In particular, the last five years have been politically tumultuous. From day one, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) made its priority to go after political foes, stifle free speech, and inhibit freedom of movement, using government and international instruments to attack anyone it deems a threat. Attacks on former presidents, prime ministers, and the use of firepower against peaceful protests have been the hallmark of the administration. The current political standoff is indicative of an out-of-touch leadership that will stop at nothing to rig elections. A highly contested election cycle lands the country in uncharted territory. Attempts to steal the election by any means necessary have ushered in a new dawn of political chaos not seen since the country’s Third Republic was formed in 2000. As millions face starvation and security threats from Al-Shabaab mount, FGS and regional leaders have derailed all efforts to hold timely and credible elections.

President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, whose term ended on 8 February 2021, attempted a coup d’état on 27 December 2021, dramatically raising the political temperature in Mogadishu. In April, over 100,000 people fled the capital after government forces and leading opposition supporters clashed over the proposed law to extend the government’s mandate by two years — a violation of the country’s provisional constitution. These delays, clashes and uncertainties have led to the near-total collapse of government functions causing economic hardship and deep fissures across all sectors including within the security apparatus.

The current political standoff is indicative of an out-of-touch leadership that will stop at nothing to rig elections.

Political volatility has contributed to the weak response to the current drought. International donors are very apprehensive about disbursing aid to support drought mitigation efforts for fear that the funds will be used to finance political campaigns. The continued political instability has also prevented major donors from providing much-needed development aid. Those in the know understand that very little progress is being made, if any, and that the “igu sawir” — the photo-ops by government officials— are only for show, to give international partners and the public the impression that things are moving forward. The recent agreement by the National Consultative Council, consisting of Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble and the heads of regional governments, says that elections must be completed by 25 February 2022. This is the third such agreement on elections, a last ditch effort to salvage the polls and prevent the country from spiralling into political violence.

The billion-dollar failure

In 2020, Somalia received US$2.0 billion both in humanitarian and development aid. The absence of a vested and capable government, the lack of accountable partnerships between humanitarian aid partners and the government, rampant corruption by all actors, and psychological dependence on aid have kept Somalis on life support. While increased funds are required to tackle the complex challenges across the country, it must be understood that money alone will not change the conditions on the ground.

The problem with the humanitarian and development aid cycle in Somalia is that assessments of threats are routinely conducted, analysed and published, but meaningful steps are rarely taken to pre-empt a crisis. Prevention and proactive measures are not defined early, clearly, or prioritized and resources tend to arrive after disasters have taken hold and families have lost their most basic resilience. Recurrent droughts and floods persist because partners do not invest in real solutions that would address their root causes. Very conveniently, money earmarked for emergencies can only be used for “aid” in the form of food and non-food items; it cannot be redirected to where it would have a more meaningful impact such as water management and infrastructure.

The goal cannot simply be “saving lives” without any measure of the quality of those lives that are saved. There seems to be no feedback loop in this cycle to critique both the continued investment in inadequate strategies, and the recurrence of deadly events that hinder economic development, improved governance, the rise of civil society, and the implementation of effective, long-term solutions. The majority of programmes are designed in Halane, a UN compound where all international actors reside, with much of the decision-making taking place in Nairobi, Geneva, or London without localized understanding or willingness to programme for impact. Development work does not work in theory alone — it has to work in practice.

The goal cannot simply be “saving lives” without any measure of the quality of those lives that are saved.

There are numerous UN agencies and hundreds of INGOs/NGOs operating throughout the country, all with different approaches and mandates that they carry out in a highly paternalistic, condescending, and out of touch, master-servant manner. Each agency has its own unique mission/vision (agenda) and the aid machinery and infrastructure are greased with dollars meant for Somalia’s most vulnerable. It is a system that prioritizes the sustainable livelihoods of its expats, who receive exorbitant compensation packages.

Aid system in need of urgent reform

The failure to adapt and the refusal to reform and transfer ownership to local communities has resulted in poor outcomes. Despite the worsening climate shocks that call for long-term sustainable solutions, UN agencies and international partners continue to push an emergency response narrative and often hide behind self-imposed policies to justify ad hoc short-term programmes as the pendulum swings between extremes for the Somali people.

“This is Somalia” is a common phrase among partners that means “anything goes”, and leads to programmes that set the bar at the lowest level possible. The effectiveness of projects is hardly considered; instead, project burn rates (how fast project budgets are spent) are used as a measure of progress. In the decades-long absence of a functional national and subnational government, many in the UN system have become accustomed to unfettered powers. Partners have operated without needing to work with the government. They are governed by organizational mandates with zero oversight or monitoring from the national or regional authorities. Both local and international NGOs are funded by donors directly through UN agencies to provide nearly all the basic services (shelter, water, health, education).

Until very recently, partners and donors have been reluctant to invest in government institutions to build capacities. This act is counterintuitive to the basic principle of supporting a state-building agenda. UN agencies and donors are often not able to directly assess, monitor, and evaluate the implementation of programmes and rely on self-reported methodologies from implementing agencies whose predetermined outcomes favour them. Consequently, this leads to results that are open to interpretation, that are unreliable and questionable at best.

The modus operandi in Somalia is to continue to rely on non-state actors to deliver essential services while the government at all levels fails to build true capacities, sound governmental systems, civil and economic infrastructure and financial models to resource programmes for its citizens. Rigid partner structures that operate parallel to the government at best downplay the role of the government and at worse stifle real institutional development.

Remedial actions

The humanitarian crisis across the country needs the immediate attention of the government and the international community before it becomes a full-blown famine. The Somali government must mobilize resources and capacities to prevent yet another humanitarian catastrophe.

As the election fever builds, federal government and the federal member states should redirect the millions allotted for vote-buying and election rigging to the hundreds of thousands of families that have lost the means to support themselves. Governments both national and local must begin people-centred campaigns to fundraise from Somalis at home and abroad. It is fundamental that international partners and the aid infrastructure make room for swift reforms that shift programming power to local actors and governments.

Investment in water infrastructure to support adequate water resources is the only way out of Somalia’s humanitarian conundrum. Given that nearly all of the rural livelihoods are agro-pastoral — investment in robust water infrastructure is critically needed to build resilient, sustainable communities that no longer need to rely on water trucks for the supply of water.  

Empowering affected communities to apply locally developed solutions should be prioritized. Top-down plans with heavy overheads must be avoided. Direct support to communities using transparent money transfer systems is needed to provide immediate relief to the communities for whom agro-pastoralism is a traditional way of life. Developing and investing in low-hanging fruit such as the blue economy and livestock, the backbone of Somalia’s fragile economy, is urgently needed.

New conversations must be had around what it means to assist those in dire need with the goal of building resilient and self-sufficient communities. The historical humanitarian systems of shock and response have systematically failed Somalia. Such approaches keep Somalia mired in a state of despair, unable to make ends meet. Reform of the aid system led by a strong capable government that understands the complexity and the expertise required to tackle many of the existential threats the country faces is needed. This will reinforce mutual accountability between the government and the international community.

Developing and investing in low-hanging fruit such as the blue economy and livestock, the backbone of Somalia’s fragile economy, is urgently needed.

It is about time humanitarian actors in Somalia asked themselves where the value-added for their investments is to be found and how they can restructure the current approach to bring about a significant impact to the lives of marginalized Somalis.

Government leadership must prioritize saving millions from starvation, end the political standoff, and hold timely and credible elections. The international community and those who bankroll Somalia’s political elite have a moral and practical obligation to ensure that election stagnation ends and that credible election outcomes are obtained. By failing to do so, Somalia’s partners will have contributed to the imminent demise of the Third Republic and to allowing the famine that now threatens the country to take hold.