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'Strategic patience'

October 16, 2017

Somalia is still on the verge of famine, says Peter de Clercq, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia. About seven million people still depend on humanitarian aid.

A malnourished child in Mogadishu
Image: DW/S. Petersmann

DW: A looming famine could be averted in the past few months, but you say that the country is still in danger. Why?

Peter de Clercq: Because people are incredibly vulnerable here and because the effects of the drought are taking a long time to materialize. We've had three consecutive rainy seasons that failed. As a result, now there are about 800,000 people in a pre-famine situation, which means they're in crisis. They are only one step away from actual famine.

Since February, we have disbursed about $1 billion (847,000 euros) of humanitarian aid, which is a very significant amount of money. Nevertheless, we require an additional hundred million per month until the end of the year to keep the situation from turning into a famine.

Read more: New beginning for failed state Somalia?

Do you always reach the right people? There are vast areas controlled by al-Shabab where international aid just cannot be delivered to.

We believe we've got it better this time because we are using more innovative ways of assistance. When you think of relief and humanitarian operations, you think of trucks, air drops, and big supply systems coming in to provide food, aid, and water.

We've used much more cash this time. We've actually set in place a system whereby people individually get cash grants through debit cards or cash transfers, so they can go to the local market and buy the food that they need and want. That's very different from previous times.

Refugees from Bariire in a camp in Mogadishu
Refugees from Bariire have fled from al-Shabab to a camp in MogadishuImage: DW/S. Petersmann

So we are able to get into areas where it would be extremely difficult to get in with a plane or truck, but where the local business community still manages to bring products in.

Who takes care of selecting people for cash assistance?

This is where we are working very closely with the government, and that's also a big difference between 2011 and now. We have functioning administrations - often at the local level - and they're very interested in being of value to local communities. They really want to represent local communities, so they play a role.

And then we have a very big network of UN and NGO agencies on the ground. We have hundreds of staff in the areas where assistance is provided. In particular, the local NGOs play a very important role as intermediaries between the local communities, us and the authorities.

Somalia has a history of being the most corrupt country on earth.

I very much acknowledge that when it comes to corruption - this is one of the most troublesome countries in the world. We know that. And in 2011, we lost a significant amount of money because a number of the partners we worked with were not honest.

So after 2011, a system has been put in place [and] every partner we work with is being vetted. They're actually being subjected to a type of exam whereby they have to provide information on how they manage, to show us that they have systems in place where they can account for the money we give them. So we've made a lot of progress.

While the UN have focused their efforts on humanitarian aid and state building, the US is stepping up their military campaign. How can that possibly go together?

It necessarily goes together because state building means a variety of things. It means a functioning state system, and that includes the government providing security to the people. It includes a functioning economy and fighting corruption.

It includes many things that we take for granted in the West, but which in these fragile and collapsed states like Somalia have been absent for decades. They haven't functioned for decades, so you need to work on all these things at the same time. And of course, al-Shabab is very much the product of an Islamic insurgency, but at the same time it is a reflection of the desperation in young boys who have nothing else in life.

Maybe they have a few goats that they are keeping alive or a little piece of land where they're working on. But the attraction for them is to get a uniform, regular payment, [goals] and some pride in their existence. All of a sudden, they're somebody because they're carrying a gun, and that's a very big temptation.

And if you don't provide an alternative, every young man may be drawn towards that type of life. If you look at security only as eradicating Islamic leaders or Islamic groups and you don't look at the economic reasons why many of these young people join al-Shabab or any other of these movements, you're likely to get these types of insurgencies.

What are the root causes of hunger in Somalia?

It is a combination of things. One issue that is undeniable is the whole issue of climate change. We've seen the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa going very fast. As a result of climate change there is less pasture and less available grazing land.

So you have got a competition between the people who do agriculture and people who do livestock, and that has ended very badly. These kind of climate-induced problems are being made worse by conflict, because there are those who exploit these conflicts between local communities.

Of course, we did not have a functioning government, either. So we did not have somebody clearly taking the lead. The international community cannot do that. We cannot replace a government and get a development process going.

If we give this a chance for 15 to 20 years, this country may get back on its feet again. That may sound like a very long period to you, but it took 30 years for the country to fall apart. The alternative is 30 more years of humanitarian aid. And I don't think that is an alternative.

De Clercq is the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia
De Clercq (center) is the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for SomaliaImage: UN Somalia

But patience seems to be running low quickly. We have seen in places like Afghanistan that the longer an intervention lasts, the more jittery people get. 

Look, make the calculation: we've spent $4 billion in this country on humanitarian aid since 2011. Can you imagine what we could have done if that was invested in development? What they could have done in regenerating the economy or rebuilding the cities? I'm not saying we should stop all humanitarian aid and now go into development, but we have to start introducing strong development in this country.

We have a government that we can work with for the first time in 30 years. And we have an international community that's willing to give it a chance. But don't think that within a year or two it's going to go away. It's going to take time, and if we are not willing to give that time, we're not going to succeed. We need to have strategic patience to stick with the country.

Peter de Clercq is the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia.