Creating humanitarian space: a case study of Somalia

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In the past few years, the situation in Somalia has repeatedly been described as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world (Menkhaus 2009, UNHCR 2009a). In early 2009 over three million people were estimated to be in need of aid, a 77% increase in less than a year (OCHA 2008, 2009).

It has been estimated that as many as two-thirds of Mogadishu's population might have fled their homes (Lindley 2009). Many of these forcibly displaced persons gathered along the roads outside Mogadishu in an area known as Afgooye, with numbers ranging from 200.000 to over 400.000 (ICG 2008, UNHCR 2009b). However, the amount of aid they have received is far from the largest in the world; in fact, it is closer to none. The starting point for this paper is to ask why this is so.

A key factor relates to the lack of humanitarian space in Somalia. This is a much used term, often used to describe the level of access for humanitarian agencies and the environment which they operate in. But the actual meaning of the term remains somewhat unclear. In this paper, I will investigate both why and how humanitarian needs can be put in focus and practically addressed through a clearer understanding of 'humanitarian space'.

This paper is based on fieldwork and interviews carried out in 2009 in Europe and Nairobi. It is divided in four main parts: in the first develops a conceptual understanding of 'humanitarian space'; the second provides a brief overview of Somalia; the third represents an exploratory study of humanitarian operations in Somalia; and in the final part I seek to draw some analytical conclusions.