Press Briefing by Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia

Press Briefing - 19991206
By responding to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia, the United Nations was not merely "dumping resources into a black hole of need", but was enabling hundreds of thousands of Somalis to come to grips with their own lives, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia told correspondents this afternoon at a Headquarters press briefing.

The Coordinator, Randolph Kent, said that Somalia should be seen in a different light from that of the past five years. Somalia was no longer a synonym for crisis, and the image of a United States Marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu no longer characterized the country. Areas of stability were now found throughout Somalia, particularly in the northwest and northeast. In addition, "islands" of stability could now be found in the country's central region. In Bay and Bakool, for example, people were now beginning, albeit slowly and painfully, to deal with their future.

A steady increase in stability, however, did not mean that the humanitarian crisis was over, he continued. Unlike the standard notion of Somalia as one "great tragedy", the humanitarian crisis should be thought of as "one with a vision". On the one hand, the United Nations was engaging in the humanitarian crisis in the same way it had for the past five years. On the other hand, its approach could now be seen as preventative. The situation in Somalia had provided the donor community with an opportunity to prevent a crisis.

He said that half of the $50 million humanitarian assistance appeal could be used for prevention activities. That would enable United Nations agencies -- the World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO)-- to provide enough resources to keep Somalis from migrating. By staying on their land, they could begin to take advantage of the rains and avoid the threat of internal displacement or heightened vulnerability. If the international community responded now, the vulnerability of 600,000 people in need would be eased.

Asked how the political situation in Somalia affected the humanitarian crisis, he said that the impact of the political situation had been tremendous. For example, in areas around Jawhar and into the lower Shabeellaha region, the continuing conflict meant that delivering resources to vulnerable populations took longer. That both increased the cost of delivery and, in some cases, prevented it altogether. Food was available if people could afford it, but the conflict had interfered with deliveries to the market places, driving up prices.

Asked about programmes for the children of Somalia, he said that he was very much aware of the issue of children and armed conflict, and the work of the Secretary-General's Special Representative in that regard. He was particularly aware of UNICEF's efforts, as well as the assistance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to bring assistance to children in southern Somalia.

Another correspondent asked where the number of NGOs in Somalia had increased.

He recalled that during his recent visit to Baidoa and Marka, Sergio Vieira de Mello, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, had applauded the progress made by women's groups in Marka. The work of the NGOs was a key element in Somalia. Intellectuals, community groups and women's groups had contributed to the development of small zones of peace and security in the central, and to a lesser extent, the southern areas. The office of the Humanitarian Coordinator was also assisting NGOs through cultural programmes, which were led by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UNICEF and the European Union. His office was also cooperating with NGOs seeking to support the development of certain industries, such as the production of incense.

Asked to describe the outlook for farming and for the coming harvest, he said that it depended on the amount of rain, which would be known next month when the FAO conducted an assessment of Somalia's rainfall. Warlords and militia needed to realize that unless they let farmers receive seeds, the rains -- no matter how effective -- would be of no use. His office had emphasized that point to the militias. It had been a difficult negotiation, but with "luck and good rains", there would hopefully be an adequate crop. Somalia had never been food self-sufficient. Somalis had always been traders and nomads, and would always depend on imports. The question was whether Somalis could move away from humanitarian assistance and participate in commercial trade. That depended on the success of the United Nations' assistance.

Another correspondent asked for examples of preventative programmes. "Basic things to keep people in place", he replied. Water systems provided by UNICEF, for example, were important because without water people would migrate. Another example was the WFP deliveries which likewise kept vulnerable groups from moving in search of food. Furthermore, seeds, principally supplied by NGOS, were being given to farmers for planting. An absence of rain coupled with a rise in prices, however, could diminish the value of all preventative activities. The international community had an opportunity to respond now, before disaster struck.

What were the prospects for relative peace and security across the country? a correspondent asked.

He said that the northwest was far more developed and had a well-respected system of governance. That was not the situation in the northeast, where various groups were still vying for power. Far more fragile were the regions of Bay and Bakool, where much depended on the positioning of various clans. By introducing forms of governance, the United Nations could help ensure legitimate ways for the Somali people to obtain food. That would be a difficult challenge to meet.