Local Aid Works Better in Somalia
Somalia could fall into the same trap as Afghanistan and Iraq where massive influxes of aid create a short-term boom in the economy but don’t necessarily lay the groundwork for sustainable growth, said Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto and chief operation officer of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, an internationally renowned organization in Somalia that has provided emergency relief to people throughout the civil war.
Ms. Ahmad said Mogadishu’s current stability is mostly due to the “green zone” established by the international community, and because aid sometimes doesn’t reach rural areas, desperate people are now drawn to the capital, “creating a number of new humanitarian and security concerns that we haven’t seen thus far.”
“Once you leave the green zone, the situation changes dramatically, and you’ll see a lot of the old militia coming out of the bush the minute you leave the capital city going into Afgooye corridor,” she said.
International support is helpful, she said, “but it’s more helpful when it allows local partners who have a great deal of expertise and knowledge to take the lead.”
The Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation was founded over 20 years ago by Dr. Abdi who, at the suggestion of her grandmother, used her degree in medicine to provide humanitarian assistance to the Somali community when the state was beginning to collapse into civil war. She said the grassroots nature of the organization gives it a huge advantage over large organizations in providing assistance thanks to years of acquiring local knowledge, which lessens security concerns and gives them a “smaller footprint.”
“Where [aid agencies] get in trouble, and where things get complicated, is when these large international organizations parachute into the field, usually in the moment of crisis, with no idea what the local context looks like. And if they show up with a political agenda, or if they show up with an affiliation or significant resources that they want to use in a certain way, that can affect impartiality. And our impartiality is what allows us to work really effectively.”
"These organizations dramatically affect the local economy in ways that are detrimental for our organization. During the 2011 famine crisis, we literally had to double our salaries overnight, because these organizations came in with much larger budgets. We knew that they were only in-country for six months, but if we did not match their salaries, our 21-year old operation would have collapsed. In ways like that, sometimes international organizations show up without really understanding the impact they have on organizations that have been in-country for the entire duration of the conflict."
Ms. Ahmad said that the wrong kind of humanitarian assistance can inadvertently create other crises. “We’re quite concerned that the government has made makeshift IDP camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu, in order to house displaced people, and the permanency of those new IDP camps may in fact worsen the humanitarian crisis, because now we’re essentially moving tens of thousands of people into the capital city."
“So, you create a crisis, and then you appeal to the international donor community to solve that crisis by giving more and more amounts of aid, a percentage of which is all then being funded into the government apparatus, or to those actors within the government that see that as an opportunity.”
The interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Visiting Fellow at the International Peace Institute.
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin (AOS): Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Aisha Ahmad, Chief Operating Officer of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation in Somalia and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, where her academic research explores the political economy of state failure and state formation in the Muslim world.
Aisha, the latest data on the humanitarian situation in Somalia suggests that conditions are improving—the number of people in crisis has halved since August 2012. However, more than one million people are still in need of assistance. The organization you work with, the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, provides healthcare, food, and shelter to tens of thousands of Somalis. What does the situation on the ground look like in Somalia today?
Aisha Ahmad (AA): Thanks so much. The situation in Somalia differs depending on where you are. Most organizations are based in Mogadishu where the African Union presence is really strong. There’s an observation mostly in the media that Mogadishu is stabilized and therefore Somalia is definitely on the mend and that security has improved and conditions have improved. What’s really important to know is that the security that’s being created is actually the construction of what we commonly refer to as a “green zone.” Within the green zone, you will see an improved security situation even though the recent al-Shabaab attacks over the past week definitely shook the population. Nonetheless, for Mogadishu it is a much more improved situation.
However, once you leave the green zone, the situation changes dramatically, and you’ll see a lot of the old militia coming out of the bush the minute you leave the capital city going into Afgooye corridor. And what we see here, in the same way as in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, is that a massive influx of aid into this contained environment creates jobs, opportunities, and a short-term boom in the economy—but that it is not necessarily the same thing as sustainable growth. That stability, increased livelihood, and job opportunities are directly dependent upon the international intervention and those international aid dollars, like in the case of Afghanistan where we’ve got ninety-one percent of the economy dependent on the international community; when that money dries up, we’re going to have a profound shock to that economy. And we’re worried that in Somalia, it’s much the same situation; a lot of the foreign money that’s come in has transformed Mogadishu to the extent that the population is now in a way dependent upon the green zone.
But once you leave the capital city, it’s a very different story; aid resources don’t necessarily reach those areas, and what that has done is attract more and more IDPs and desperate people into the capital of Mogadishu. That creates a number of new humanitarian and security concerns that we haven’t seen thus far.
AOS: The acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Stefano Porretti, has said that while the crisis continues, “innovative approaches to aid delivery” have made a profound difference. Have you seen any innovations in humanitarian action in Somalia that you feel are making an impact?
AA: Well, there have certainly been a number of new developments in Somalia over the past 20 years; we haven’t had a government, and in the past six months, there’s been a new formal government. It refers to itself as the permanent government—which I suppose some of us consider problematic language—but nonetheless, Somalis are very happy to see the presence of an actual government that is attempting to exert its authority over the countryside, even though their ability to do so is limited.
One concern of humanitarian organizations like ours is that the government seeks to take the lead on delivery of humanitarian resources, but at the same time there is a problem of those resources being co-opted. It’s clear that international aid is a source of revenue in places like Somalia. One of the things that we’re concerned about is the creation of crisis and the perpetuation of crisis in order to continue to justify those amounts of resources being donated to governments. We’re quite concerned that the government has made makeshift IDP camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu, in order to house displaced people, and the permanency of those new IDP camps may in fact worsen the humanitarian crisis, because now we’re essentially moving tens of thousands of people into the capital city.
So, you create a crisis, and then you appeal to the international donor community to solve that crisis by giving more and more amounts of aid, a percentage of which is all then being funded into the government apparatus, or to those actors within the government that see that as an opportunity. We’re in a way creating crisis economies as opposed to being really committed to resolving the humanitarian crisis and having people who are affected by it—internally displaced persons—go home and become independent, and I think that’s a serious concern. Even though there are innovations in delivery, we do see a lot of the same patterns that we’ve seen in other parts of the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere.
AOS: Let’s talk a little bit about Dr. Hawa Abdi and her foundation. Dr. Hawa Abdi, the founder and namesake, was born in 1947 in Mogadishu. Since the civil war began in Somalia in 1991, she has dedicated her life to caring for women, children, and elderly Somalis in need. Can you tell us what this local, grassroots approach to aid can offer that international humanitarian efforts cannot—and maybe there’s a few stories from the foundation’s work that you’d like to share? And also, where and when international support is needed as well?
AA: Dr. Hawa is an absolutely phenomenal human being. She is a Somali grandmother who without arms or a great deal of financial resources behind her has been able to continue to provide humanitarian assistance in the midst of ongoing conflict for over 20 years. And she has done so on the basis of a moral authority. That moral authority comes from the magnitude of her generosity, the magnitude of her hospitality, and the magnitude of her service. What she did was essentially give her farmland, free medical care, water from her wells, to provide for everybody who came to her door regardless of clan affiliation, gender identity, no matter what. All people were welcome.
When I go through the streets of Mogadishu and people stop me and her daughter Deqo, we get rock-star treatment, because we’re affiliated with a woman who has literally helped hundreds of thousands of human beings with her own hands. We were stopped on the streets regularly just to have people shake our hands and say, were it not for you, my uncle, my brother, my mother, my sister would not be here today. The power of her service is the reason she was able to do what she has done. It’s the reason that the war around us in Somalia has respected her neutrality and respected her right to continue to serve in that way. I’ve seen commanders and militias move to get out of the way when Dr. Hawa is there to do her work.
And I’ve never met an international aid organization, frankly, that has even a small fraction of the local knowledge and the moral authority that Dr. Hawa has in Somalia. We don’t ever have to buy our security in order to work in Afgooye. We know exactly which local elders to call in order to ensure the safety and security of our staff. We don’t make rookie mistakes when it comes to culture, security, or a needs assessment about what people in the area really want. It is also particularly difficult to pull the wool over our eyes. We’re very savvy to the tricks of the trade when it comes to aid exploitation and the kind of schemes that get pulled in desperate situations, where people try to get resources from multiple groups at the same time, perhaps to sell them and whatnot. We’re in the know in that regard, and are able to deal with communities and individuals in a way that allows us to deliver aid in a very responsible way.
In that sense, Dr. Hawa and her staff are incredibly competent when it comes to delivering aid in Somalia. We have a very light footprint on the troubles around us, and I think that’s incredibly important because a lot of the criticism of the aid industry is that it has a heavy footprint, where you bring all these resources in and they might get siphoned off by a group or end up perpetuating conflict inadvertently. Because this organization is so familiar with the security environment and the delicate walk that needs to be done, they know exactly where you can put resources, where you need to apply a little bit of pressure, where not to do that, and that’s not something that you can learn when you’re a newbie in the field. That’s something that our organization can do that international organizations can’t.
International support is helpful, but it’s more helpful when it allows local partners who have a great deal of expertise and knowledge to take the lead. Where we get in trouble and where things get complicated are when these large international organizations parachute into the field, usually in the moment of crisis, with no idea what the local context looks like, and if they show up with a political agenda, or if they show up with an affiliation or significant resources that they want to use in a certain way, that can affect impartiality. And our impartiality is what allows us to work really effectively.
It’s really important when a large international organization enters into a sensitive conflict environment and tries to partner with a local organization, that it’s an equal partnership as opposed to a partnership that may prove to be dangerous for the group that’s going to stay. Dr. Hawa’s been there for over 21 years since 1983, throughout the duration of state failure, and will continue to provide these resources for the long run. This is her legacy for Somalia. So it’s important that when these large organizations enter into country, they don’t accidentally destroy the organizations that they are partnering with and trying to support.
AOS: Thank you, that’s a really wonderful overview of the unique advantages and benefits of working in a local organization. I think your final point is important, that it’s a support role that the international community and actors can play.
But still, in the international aid world, organizations like Dr. Hawa’s—local, grassroots organizations—are often called “emerging actors” in relief activities. They may only be beginning to be considered part of the humanitarian network which is traditionally dominated by large UN agencies and organizations like the ICRC. Have you found that the international humanitarian system has started to give recognition, credence, and this type of support to local actors like Dr. Hawa Abdi who provide relief services?
AA: I think there’s a growing awareness about the gap between these large international organizations and local organizations like ours. I think the reason that Dr. Hawa’s work has received such international acclaim is the sheer magnitude of the service that she has provided. It’s for that reason that she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Having said that, international organizations are not fully aware of the impact they have on local grassroots organizations—simply even by showing up. There isn’t the same equality in the interaction.
Is there an attempt to give credence to these actors? I think that there’s maybe a greater awareness, but it’s surprising for local grassroots organizations to be referred to as emerging, particularly because we’ve been in-country the whole time. Dr. Hawa has been providing free medical care since 1983; she stayed throughout the entire duration of the civil war when nobody would come to Somalia. World Food Program was the only organization that was giving any aid to Somalia, and they were essentially bringing it to the port and then subcontracting it out to a bunch of guys who proved to be questionable, to say the least. And that was the only real, sustained international engagement for many years in Somalia.
For our organization, which continued to provide humanitarian aid using local farm revenues, very small donations, and the goodwill of the community to sustain this operation, the “emerging actors” in Somalia are the international aid organizations, which essentially parachute into country and don’t necessarily know much about the local environment, and subsequently can affect it in ways that have serious implications for local organizations. These organizations dramatically affect the local economy in ways that are detrimental for our organization. During the 2011 famine crisis, we literally had to double our salaries overnight, because these organizations came in with much larger budgets. We knew that they were only in-country for six months, but if we did not match their salaries, our 21-year old operation would have collapsed. In ways like that, sometimes international organizations show up without really understanding the impact they have on organizations that have been in-country for the entire duration of the conflict.
AOS: Aisha Ahmad, thank you so much for sharing your work and speaking with us in the Global Observatory today.
Originally published in the Global Observatory