Field Exchange Nov 2002: Long term strategies to target vulnerability in Somalia

Originally published
Summary of published paper1
Aid agencies should reorient and expand existing interventions to assist poor households capitalise on temporary improvements in environmental and security conditions in Somalia, according to a recent paper published in Disasters.

The paper is based on several years work experience by the authors in Somalia for both the UN and NGOs, and their participation in many meetings, discussions, workshops, missions and reports in and on Somalia. The central tenet of the paper is that a 'livelihoods gap' has become evident in the international community's engagement with Somalia where interventions are short-term and do not address longer-term problems of vulnerability.

In Somalia, long-standing political, economic and social systems that sustain lives and livelihoods have been disrupted and transformed by more than a decade of conflict and recurrent episodes of drought and flooding. However, humanitarian conditions in Somalia vary considerably from year to year. For example, UN agencies estimated the immediately vulnerable and food-insecure population to be as high as 1.5 million in mid-1999. By the time of the main cereal harvest in September 2000, that number had fallen dramatically to an estimated 400,000. During such times of plenty, many poor Somalis are able to regain enough assets to survive without recourse to relief aid. The alleviation of the harshest humanitarian conditions has been facilitated by improved security conditions since the height of the civil war in the early 1990s. Yet even when such positive environmental and security conditions coincide, very few Somalis have the potential to stabilise their household economies, rebuild asset bases and invest in longer-term recovery before the next 'shock' occurs.

One of the long-term socio-economic effects of the war in Somalia has been to entrench unequal access to the country's productive resource base. Current development programmes operate on the assumption that increased private sector activity, including high returns to national and international investors, will lead to poverty reduction. The authors believe that this assumption is misplaced and that opportunities for economic advancement are only available for landowners, capital holders and external investors. Until aid agencies face up to these facts and design aid programmes accordingly, little can be done to assist poor Somalis capitalise on improving environmental and security conditions in order to end the regular cycle of post-emergency recovery and relapse. One key conclusion is that ' only by accumulating ownership of, and access to, enough assets over time will a sufficient cushion exist for Somalis to face future droughts and other natural stresses without recurrently succumbing to the need for relief assistance'.

Based on an analysis of the economic dynamics of vulnerability in Somalia the authors formulate an initial breakdown of potential reinforcing objectives to consider in programming:

  • Protect household asset bases by extending access to essential social services in order to reduce household expenditures (for example, promote the presence of more aid projects for health, water, education and increase their coverage in rural areas)

  • Rebuild asset bases by supporting the household economy strategies of poor groups, including strengthening the benefits received from labour migration, the informal economy, social networks and coping strategies

  • Focus and time aid interventions to minimise seasonal stress (for example during the dry season and planting season) to enable households to capitalise on seasonal gains

  • Stimulate household income through public works projects targeting improved market and social service infrastructure

  • Intervene in markets to ensure adequate access and terms of trade for poor households (for example, consider modalities of improving market incentives for geographical redistribution of food from surplus-producing areas, or purchasing excess livestock and grain supplies when cash earnings are required).
The authors acknowledge that such support cannot guarantee the automatic succession of any renewed or vigorous trend towards development. Rather, in the absence of further conflict, the rebuilding of household assets among poor wealth groups will allow Somalis to recover a minimum level of subsistence and undertake uncertain investment in their own future. The alternative is however all too clear - "continuous food aid, supplementary feeding, water trucking and emergency responses to epidemics as the blunt, problematic tools of last resort for the humanitarian agencies to prevent further catastrophes in Somalia."


1 Le Sage A and Majid N (2002): The Livelihoods Gap: Responding to the Economic Dynamics of Vulnerability in Somalia. Disasters, 2002, 26 (1): pp 10-27