In Somalia, Humanitarian NGOs Against Integration with United Nations: Interview with Joel Charny

An integrated United Nations mission in Somalia will inevitably be politicized and compromise humanitarian aid to the troubled region, said Joel Charny, Vice President of InterAction, an alliance of 180 American nongovernmental organizations. 

In March, Mr. Charny’s organization, which works specifically in humanitarian and development aid, responded to the UN Security Council decision to integrate all UN functions in Somalia by releasing a joint statement with two other NGO consortia that read in part, “By requiring UN humanitarian coordination to fall under the political mandate of the new UN peacebuilding mission in Somalia, the neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian action will be compromised.” 

Mr. Charny said that pushing back on the Security Council decision does not mean al-Shabaab is absolved from the responsibility for the suffering in their territory. “They have been very unreasonable in their demands of humanitarian organizations,” he said. “But let us, let our community, let individual agencies go in and see if access can be negotiated. We don’t accept the idea that inevitably, we're associated with the UN, and with foreign intervention, and with UN integration; there should be another possibility.” 

Mr. Charny said that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Valerie Amos, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, had words of caution about structural integration, but they were ignored, largely because of a big push by the United States. “[The] United States mission to the UN basically looked the Secretary-General in the eye, and basically defied him on the issue of this mission being structurally integrated. I find that incredible.”

Though a structurally integrated mission similar to Somalia is likely planned for Mali, Mr. Charny said his organization might not push back as hard. “I am quite honestly not seeing as much energy on the Mali discussion as I saw on the Somalia discussion. So, in that sense, there's been a definite kind of political impact that's affected our community.”

“I'm in favor of unity of effort, absolutely. But it's got to be unity of effort that allows for flexibility within the overall structure, so that humanitarian needs can be met in terms that we are comfortable with as a humanitarian community, and whether were going to see that in either Somalia or Mali I think can be questioned.”

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

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript:

Jérémie Labbé: I am here today with Joel Charny, Vice President of InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 American nongovernmental organizations working in humanitarian and development aid around the world. Joel, thank you very much for being with us today. 

In March, the UN Security Council decided to integrate all UN functions in Somalia under one UN umbrella, creating an integrated mission. Your organization has strongly criticized this decision in a joint statement with two other NGO consortia representing a wide array of humanitarian organizations. What are your concerns?

Joel Charny: I think the main concern—it's really pretty simple, it comes down to the fact that there's still large numbers of vulnerable people in Somalia who are outside the area of effective government control. And by all means, we want to see a stable, and politically healthy, socially healthy Somalia. But the perception of an integrated mission and the actuality of an integrated mission is that a particular government, a particular political perspective, will drive decisions, not only about political issues, but also about humanitarian issues, and quite simply, to reach people in need in areas that are controlled either by al-Shabaab, or potentially by other non-state actors, the humanitarian operation we thought would be better served by being independent of the political mission.

JL: Don’t you think that whether or not the UN mission in Somalia is integrated, that all foreign NGOs present in Somalia are anyway perceived by the local population as closely associated with the UN present staff, given the fact that they're all foreigners. Don’t you think that there is a perception that they are all the same?

JC: I think the point is we as an NGO community, would like to have the opportunity to conduct our own negotiations in our own terms. And I think one of the problems of the whole Somalia discussion has been when we push back against integration, or push back against a UN, or international political agenda, we're in no way saying that al-Shabaab does not bear responsibility for the suffering in their territory; they do. I mean, they've been very unreasonable in their demands of humanitarian organizations. But let us, let our community, let individual agencies go in and see if access can be negotiated. We don’t accept the idea that inevitably, we're associated with the UN, and with foreign intervention, and with UN integration, there should be another possibility. Now, if we find in the course of negotiation that we simply can’t negotiate access, for whatever reasons, that becomes our problem. But we’d rather not go into this setting just thinking that by definition, we all have to be a part of the same political project.

JL: It reminds me of something that a similar UN official from the department of political affairs said once about integration that at the end of the day, what people see is the blue flag floating on the mast, and whether it is a structural integration, whether the UN office sits in the same premises or separate, what they see is this blue flag. So, do you think this idea of the mission being structurally integrated really has a bearing for the population in Somalia? 

JC: I won’t go so far as to say the population can necessarily differentiate, but it has a huge impact on the ability of humanitarian actors to act independently if they choose to do so. And again, I go back to what I just said: if humanitarian organizations can free themselves of the stigma from the point of view of the Somali people about what the UN is actually doing in the political realm, they should have the freedom to do that, that’s fundamentally what we're saying. 

We're not trying to be naive here, but what I think was the most striking thing about the process that led to this decision is the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "structural integration in Somalia was premature." Valerie Amos, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, said, "structural integration was inappropriate." I mean, this is not some crazy position of a bunch of out-there NGOs. What we found fascinating was that the United States, Britain, and France that were driving the move towards structural integration ignored the advice of the Secretary-General that they handpicked; it is a really bizarre situation. I think almost unprecedented and I am surprised that there has been so little press attention to that dimension. I mean, I am a US citizen, United States mission to the UN basically looked the Secretary-General in the eye, and basically defied him on the issue of this mission being structurally integrated. I find that incredible. 

JL: More than one month after the Security Council resolution, how has it been implemented in the field, and can you already see some of the developments that you feared happening on the ground?

JC: It's really premature for that. We’ve had the decision, and as some of your listeners may know, there's now been an assessment mission that's gone out to try and figure, ok, in the light of this decision, what exactly does this mean for the way the United Nations is going to operate in Somalia, that report is just being pulled together. 

In some ways we're not optimistic, but we see the potential for other opportunities to engage in this discussion, and perhaps possible modify some of the decisions that have been made, when they're ready to actually implement them in Somalia. 

So, even though the decision has been made at the level of the Security Council, the actual modalities of how it’s implemented still need to be worked on; I'd say it's really too soon to tell. I'm not following Somalia closely enough to know whether al-Shabaab has reacted negatively, or whether there have been other negative reactions, or perhaps other individuals or political factions in the Somalia political dynamic. But, I think we'll have to see how this plays out in the coming months. I don’t think it's going to be clear for at least another 3 to 6 months what the exact practical impact of this decision is going to be.

JL: Did your organization’s statement against the integrated mission have any effect on the Security Council?

JC: That's an important and interesting question. There were moments in this process where we really thought victory was ours, victory in the sense that the British, who are leading the process on the Security Council, were in fact going to agree to compromise, and their various structural possibilities in terms of what compromise might have looked like. We were following this day-to-day through nongovernmental offices in New York, and there were moments when I remember writing a congratulatory email to one of my colleagues saying, "Hey you did it, the British have actually agreed to having a separate OCHA office,” or whatever the permutation was at that point. And then it was just victory was snatched away from us if you want to say that. 

The other thing that struck me is kind of the anger and the push back that we got from the US UN mission in particular; I mean a lot of "your just naive humanitarians, don’t you care about Somalia, and the long-term stability of Somalia.” I mean, there was a lot of almost resentment as we ratcheted up our effort, the push back—especially from the US, less so from the British—but especially from the US, got stronger and stronger, and I think as things cool down a little bit, I think it's going to be important for some of us who worked on this to kind of have a dialogue maybe with the US, and the British, and the French to say, "Well, can we clarify where we were coming from. Can you explain why a unified support to the government of Somalia suddenly became such an important issue that you defy the Secretary-General,” etc. This got ratcheted up very quickly and became unusually emotional very quickly, at least on the part of the US UN mission, and I am having a hard time figuring out why that happened.

JL: If the statement doesn’t change anything—I hear that the are still some hopes maybe that it can influence a bit the Security Council—but if not, are there any measures that can be taken by the UN mission in Somalia in order to alleviate the potential perverse effects on the humanitarian aid in the country?

JC: That's really hard to say. Again, it depends a lot on how al-Shabaab is going to react, it depends a lot on, frankly, the conduct of the government. I mean, how many bets has the international community placed on governments of Somalia over the last 10 years, and how many of those bets have paid off. For some reason, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, and others have concluded that this time it's going to work. Maybe it will, but if it doesn’t work, if there is more misrule in Somalia, if the drought continues, and vulnerability continues, I think the UN is going to have to find a way to react such that the food needs, for example, of vulnerable people can be met in Somalia.

 By no means are we saying the “hell with the whole situation.” We'll continue to challenge the UN and continue to challenge ourselves to see if an effective response to the needs of the people of Somalia can be organized even under the rubric of structurally integrated missions. 

The way I view it is, it's an ongoing situation in Somalia, key decisions can be made they can demonstrate the effectiveness of the UN, and the international community, and the government of Somalia in responding to the needs of the people. 

JL: Our discussion has focused so far on Somalia. What about Mali, where the UN Security Council is currently discussing, I believe, a resolution that will create a peacekeeping mission relatively similar to the one in Somalia?

JC: I'll be honest with you: in the case of Mali, we're discouraged by the Somalia experience to the point where I can’t see a similar all-out effort to try and push back on a structurally integrated mission in Mali. I'll admit there has been some political fallout. So, we're kind of feeling we went all out on Somalia; we didn’t get there. The back roots of structural integration are enthusiastically ready to push on Mali, and I think mood in our—at least in the NGO community that I am familiar with—-has sort of "Wow, really? We have to now try and fight this battle again so soon?" I am quite honestly not seeing as much energy on the Mali discussion as I saw on the Somalia discussion. So, in that sense, there's been a definite kind of political impact that's affected our community. 

JL: In 2011, the United Nations commissioned an important study on UN integration and humanitarian space. And the study concluded that UN integration arrangements have had both positive and negative impacts on humanitarian action. So do you see any potential positive impact in Somalia—or for that matter, in Mali—that might actually counter balance some of your fears?

JC: It all comes back I think to the overall effectiveness of the government. I mean, what this is all about in the end is creating an authority in Somalia that can manage the territory of Somalia in a way that works for the needs of the Somali people. That's the whole rationale for structural integration. So, I think structural integration stands or falls on whether it results in effective unified UN support to the government, and the government in turn is able to take advantage of that support to effectively govern the territory of Somalia. 

Yes, in theory that’s a good idea, but I am especially skeptical in Somalia, but again, also concern that given the level of humanitarian need in Somalia, that it’s just going to be inevitable that they'll be less effective humanitarian response in areas that are still controlled by non-state armed groups, and I'd extend that to Mali to some extent. And the interesting thing to me about Mali is that unlike Somalia, Mali had not only a functioning government, but a functioning government that was the darling of the international community, that received hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance, including military assistance. That government for internal reasons fell apart, and what's to say they're going to piece it back together effectively even with the UN integrated mission. 

I'm in favor of unity of effort, absolutely. But it's got to be unity of effort that allows for flexibility within the overall structure, so that humanitarian needs can be met in terms that we are comfortable with as a humanitarian community, and whether were going to see that in either Somalia or Mali I think can be questioned.

JL: Joel, thank you very much for being with us today.

JC: Thanks for the chance to talk about this difficult topic.



Post a comment

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Sign Up

Subscribe to the GO's weekly roundup email:

What to Watch in 2014

Key Global Events in August
A list of key upcoming meetings and events with implications for global affairs.

2013-multilateral-602014 Top 10 Issues to Watch in Peace & Security: The Global Arena
A list of ten key issues to watch that are likely to impact international peace and security in 2014, compiled by IPI's Francesco Mancini.