Interview with Mark Bowden, UN Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Coordinator for Somalia

In this interview, Mark Bowden, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Coordinator for Somalia, discusses the challenges facing Somalia after the 2011 food crisis, as well as the nation’s dependency on humanitarian assistance.

Somalia has been receiving humanitarian assistance for decades, with on average 43 percent of its gross national income based on foreign aid. There are 2.5 million people in Somalia who are dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival, and a further 1.3 million people who are supported by it.

In 2011, Somalia was dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Despite early warning systems that pointed to famine, donors were reluctant to provide aid due to potential terrorist threats in the areas that would receive it. As a result, donors waited much later to allocate the resources necessary to mitigate the crisis.

Mr. Bowden also spoke about the inherent tensions between the work of the humanitarian community and the political arms of the United Nations, and addressed the implications of emerging humanitarian players in Somalia.   

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview
(or download mp3):

Jérémie Labbé: We’re here today with Mr. Mark Bowden, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator and Resident Coordinator for Somalia. Mr. Bowden, thank you very much for joining us today on the Global Observatory.


One year ago, Somalia was dubbed world’s worst humanitarian crisis, most notably in international media. Now that the famine has been declared over, could you brief us on the humanitarian situation there today?

Mark Bowden: Yes, Somalia still has a major humanitarian crisis, though not as acute as last year. At the moment, we estimate that there are 2.5 million people that have a need of continuing humanitarian assistance for their survival, and also a further 1.3 million people who need support to maintain their livelihoods. The nutritional status has improved in many parts of the country, but there are still areas where both humanitarian access is difficult and where the needs are great.

Recently we’ve seen some movements of the population from areas that are involved in conflict towards Ethiopia. We also have a major humanitarian problem with internally displaced people. Mogadishu now has a displaced population of over 300,000 people in conditions which are already very difficult to cope with.

So, overall, we still have the remains of a food-security crisis, as a result of the prolonged drought and rain failures, and a problem of displacement, some of it due to conflict, some of it for economic reasons, which means that there is still a major humanitarian challenge in the country.

JL: In early 2012, two major humanitarian NGOs, Save the Children International and Oxfam, to name them, criticized the late humanitarian response to the 2011 food crisis in the entire Horn of Africa, even though early warning systems had warned one month advance of an impending crisis. As far as Somalia is concerned, what can explain this late response, and do you think that the humanitarian community has learned to listen from it?

MB: The late response was in part due to the changing nature of aid mobilization and resource mobilization. We had, as you rightly said, seen signs from the early warning system that there was a crisis. With the funds that we had available to us, which is a common humanitarian fund, in the case of Somalia, we’d actually allocated resources against this. But we’d also been experiencing longer and longer delays from the donor community in terms of their aid. As you may also know, there were concerns from the international donor community about providing humanitarian assistance into an area where there was a major problem linked to the terrorism. It was in that context I think a number of donors played a game of brinkmanship, waiting until quite later on, before they allocated the resources that were acquired as flexibly and in the quantities that were required.

In terms of what’s being done, we do have improved systems. We now have a common humanitarian fund that is larger and is being better supported. We’ve also I think learned to better understand the dimensions of famine and crisis. I should have said that part of the other reason for not recognizing the crisis was that it wasn’t just a crisis based on rain failure. Somalia at that time had 270 percent price inflation in the areas that were affected, and we don’t pick up those indicators as well as we should.

So there have been changes also to the early warning system and to the way in which we assess crises. I think that there’s a stronger capacity to respond through untied resources being made available through the humanitarian coordinator and the CHF, the Common Humanitarian Fund, that will allow your interventions.

JL: You mentioned the crucial aspect of funding. One of the recommendations of this report I just mentioned was that donors could give more predictable multi-year funding. I just learned recently through the Secretary-General’s communiqué from the Mini-Summit on Somalia that took place on Wednesday that the humanitarian community in Somalia has issued a three-year consolidated appeal process. Is it a response to this, and could you tell us a little bit more about this consolidated appeal process?

MB: We have indeed gone for a three-year consolidated appeal. Now, the rational for doing that is that we feel some of the priorities in Somalia at the moment are actually to help restore people’s livelihoods and to restore their assets, and that requires a longer term and sustained response to doing that, which is why we do have a three-year strategy. Now the appeal is for three years, which is indicative, but it’s still the first year where we’re looking for firm actions and plans, but what we hope to do by this three-year appeal is to build a better and more sustained response to develop some continuity in those critical areas that we think will improve the resilience of the population to withstand what I think are the increasing numbers of climatic shocks that inevitably will happen in Somalia.      

JL: The 2011 food crisis in Somalia also saw the rise of new humanitarian players who had access, while traditional NGOs and UN agencies had not. I’m thinking about some Islamic charities and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, amongst others. What are the risks and opportunities in terms of humanitarian coordination of the rise of those new players?

MB: Well, I think that we have worked very quickly to try and engage the new humanitarian players in an overall “A” framework. The risks clearly are a fragmentation of response, sometimes duplication of response to particular beneficiaries. The challenges that I think we faced in coordination is to make the coordination structures relevant to provide value added to the new players and accessible to them. That I think requires the streamlining of the ways that the clusters approach the situation, and to have far more flexible coordination and effective coordination structures at a local level, rather than at a national level, where the new actors found it far more difficult to engage. 

JL: Coming to what makes the headlines today, there is a major offensive that is ongoing against the al-Shabaab stronghold of Kismayo in southern Somalia. As a matter of fact, the international media reported this morning that the Kenyan military declared having taken ports down in Kismayo. What is the impact of this offensive on civilians, and how are humanitarian actors responding to the needs?

MB: The offensive on Kismayo is a very difficult issue in terms of protection because, as you say, the offensive has been a long time coming. But also there are concerns that al-Shabaab and other groups are intermingled with the civilian population, making it a far more difficult offensive in terms of insuring the protection of civilians. The initial impact is in terms of the displacement of the civilian population, and we’ve seen quite large moves of the displaced population out of Kismayo. Our understanding of this is that this may be a temporary phenomenon, that they will seek to remove themselves from the area of conflict during the conflict, but may well return if they feel reassurances about their security. The displaced populations don’t seem to be moving too far away from the area, which is why we have that view.

We’ve also had—and I’ve had discussions with the ministry of defense of Kenya, with the chief of defense staff—we’ve had a continuing discussion with the AMISOM force commander about how their military tactics need to provide and assure better protection of civilians from indiscriminate deaths due to shelling or other attacks. That discussion I think has been productive in getting a far better sense from the armed forces as to what their responsibilities are, and doing their utmost to protect the civilian population while they undertake the offensive.

JL: Concerning AMISOM and the Kenyan military forces: both the deputy force commander of AMISOM, which is the African Union Mission in Somalia, and Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki recently called for the United Nations and humanitarian NGOs to deliver aid in so-called "liberated areas" in south Somalia. How do you see such goals, and, given that they are coming from some parties to the conflict, do you fear that they can impact the perception of neutrality of humanitarian actors?

MB: Yes I do, and I’ve also raised this as a concern. The point that I’d like to make is that humanitarian assistance has continued to be provided in all these areas, whether we’d call them newly accessible or not, throughout the whole period of conflict. Of course, humanitarian organizations will continue to provide assistance on an impartial and neutral basis dependent on access. So we’ve had substantial amounts of assistance going into these areas, particularly during the famine. I think we were very successful in accessing these areas, so the calls from politicians, which were not in a sense surprising, need to be seen against the context that humanitarian assistance programs have already been there, are there, and will continue to be there, but only in terms of insuring the impartiality and neutrality of those programs.

JL: As you touch upon the issue of instrumentalization or manipulation of humanitarian aid for political aid: for past years, there have been some tensions between the humanitarian community and the political arm of the United Nations that gave unconditional support to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia. Actually, a former SRSG even encouraged aid agencies to support the TFG to win "hearts and minds" in areas under its control, in contradiction with the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence, and neutrality. Are there still such tensions within the UN community, and how do you handle them as a humanitarian coordinator?

MB: I think it will be wrong to say that there is never going to be those tensions. Those tensions are I think inherent within the debate between the political side and the humanitarian side. I think that with the current Special Representative of the Secretary-General, who comes from a humanitarian background, there’s been a far better understanding of the issues we’re confronted with as humanitarian organizations, and I think also more understanding of the need to allow humanitarian space.

I myself have particular views on hearts-and-minds operations, because I agree, they impinge at times on humanitarian perceptions. But my other concern is that they’re usually not very effective in winning hearts and minds, and the real priority for missions is to reestablish the rule of law to provide access to justice, and to address those issues that the humanitarians can’t and shouldn’t be involved in, in the sense that the involvement of my colleagues on the political side of things or the military side should be more focused on creating the environment in which humanitarian assistance can be provided, and also in which services can be delivered to the population.

JL: Some within the humanitarian system worry about the so-called criminalization of dialogue with armed groups designated as terrorists, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia. Yet, such dialogue is fundamental for humanitarian actors in order to ensure acceptance and access to populations in need in areas controlled by these groups. What kind of difficulties are you facing in Somalia in these regards?

MB: I think we faced difficulties last year, particularly in the impact on humanitarian assistance and the levels of humanitarian assistance that were available. Also the conditions that at one stage donors wish to apply to the provision of humanitarian assistance. I think that the famine changed that quite a lot, because the public perception is that those conditions don’t really apply at a time when there is acute humanitarian need, and that helped us I think to improve the dialogue with countries that were concerned with the terrorist agenda.

There are a number of measures that we have put in place in terms of risk management across the border to address issues that we should be addressing in more general terms, like the divergence of assistance to whoever it applies, and I think that that has progressed. The other challenge, frankly, has been with the opposition groups, with the rebel groups like al-Shabaab, where dialogue has been increasingly difficult, particularly with international organizations, because of the perception that any members of the international aid community may be engaged in the passing of intelligence or other information.

So we’ve had a far more difficult context for actually establishing the humanitarian dialogue that we generally wish to be carrying out. At the local level, that dialogue still takes place, but at the higher levels, with these groups, it’s been a very difficult challenge.

JL: Finally, my very last question will be about the future. I’ve just learned that you’ve been appointed as Humanitarian Coordinator and Deputy Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, so congratulations for that. As you’re on the way out, if there were two or three key messages or priorities that you would pass to your successor, what would they be?

MB: One of the key messages is to try to understand Somalia’s very complex environment. Somalia is a country that has been receiving humanitarian assistance for decades, and they see access to humanitarian assistance as something that should be shared, not based on need, and meeting that challenge to provide a better profile for humanitarian assistance, and indeed to move away from the dependence on humanitarian assistance; 43 percent of gross national income in Somalia has come on average from humanitarian assistance. So one of my messages would be to work very hard to move to a far stronger and more humanitarian definition of humanitarian assistance and encourage greater movement into development assistance in the country, particularly geared at supporting the resilience of the population.

The second message would be to look at the needs of the displaced population. There are 1.3 million displaced people in Somalia who’ve been there for a long time. I’ve struggled very hard to try and improve the conditions of the displaced population. We need to make an even greater effort, and, if the political circumstances are right, to find ways of better integration of the displaced population into the community as a whole to address this.

The final issue I’d look at is this whole issue of how to better handle the return of refugees and others back into Somalia in a way that is both voluntary, but sensitive, and to see that there have to be longer term solutions for refugee populations that understand the pressures of urbanization and the other economic factors that need to be addressed in terms of a sensitive and long term return program.

JL: Mr. Bowden, let me wish you good luck for your next challenging assignment, and thank you for joining us today on the Global Observatory.

MB: Thank you.                     

Photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten



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