In Somalia, Humanitarian Agenda Pivots Toward Resilience: Interview With Philippe Lazzarini

For the first time in many years, there are less than a million people in a state of emergency in Somalia, but the number of people teetering on the edge of food insecurity has increased, said Philippe Lazzarini, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of the United Nations in Somalia.

Funding for humanitarian work has not yet included building long-term resilience in communities, though it is becoming part of the agenda. “Basically, the strategy of the humanitarian community is, number one, provide life-saving assistance to the people in need. But, number two, promote longer-term solution, and also build the capacity of the population to resist the next shocks. This is what we are calling the resilience agenda.”

Without such resilience, he said, communities remain vulnerable. “This is one of the reasons why I do believe that the gains we have observed over the last two years still remain fragile—are reversible—and would there be a new severe shock, the population would not be prepared.”

Mr. Lazzarini said efforts to expand the UN's humanitarian efforts in Somalia were stalled as a result of the June 19 attack on the main UN compound, but they have since taken steps to enhance security measures that Mr. Lazzarini says will allow programs to resume. “There is no doubt that the security situation remains challenging, and that we are operating in an environment which is not risk free,” he said.

“We do need to improve being more accepted by the population,” he said. “We do need to make local authorities more responsible to ensure that there is an environment conducive for the humanitarian partners. And all this would also have to be done by a certain number of ‘passive protection’ or security measures the agencies will have to invest in.”

Issues of perception are also at stake for the UN’s humanitarian presence in Somalia, as the effort has experienced a structural integration with the UN's political mission, resulting in Mr. Lazzarini serving as the deputy of the political leadership of the mission as part of his humanitarian coordinator position.

“We will need to remain extremely aware about the perception of the humanitarian partners vis-a-vis the Somali population,” Mr. Lazzarini said. He said the UN Security Council resolution that mandated this integration also says explicitly that, “when it comes to humanitarian assistance to the population, this assistance has to remain impartial, independent, and neutral.”

“I also do believe that when it comes to the humanitarian agenda, the humanitarian coordinator will not respond to a political office, but will continue to respond to the emergency response coordinator,” he said. “So, it is important to bear in mind that the humanitarian agenda will not be subordinated to political decisions, especially if we want also to apply the letter and the spirit of the latest Security Council resolution.”

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript (edited)

Jérémie Labbé: I'm here today with Philippe Lazzarini, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator of the United Nations in Somalia since April 2013. Philippe, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory

Somalia was badly hit by a famine two years ago. How is the food security situation today?

Philippe Lazzarini: Somalia has recovered from the famine, which, just to remind people, had a devastating impact on the population for a period of almost 18 months. About half a million people died, half of them directly because of the famine, and half of those deaths were children and women; we have the highest mortality rate of children under the age of five and highest maternal mortality rate in the sub-Saharan region. 

Two years later—thanks to better crops and harvest, and also thanks to a massive mobilization—we can say that the situation has improved. We have, for the first time in many years, less than a million people in a state of emergency. 

The worrying news, I would say, is that we have an increased number of people teetering on the edge of food insecurity—which means 2.3 million people food insecure in the country.

JL: I understand that the humanitarian situation is better, yet it remains severe. Yet humanitarian operations are only 42% funded the last time I checked, which I think was at the end of October 2013. 

So, what explains this reluctance by donors to fund humanitarian aid in Somalia? Is it linked in any ways with the fear of aid being diverted by some armed groups, especially groups designated as terrorist entities like al-Shabaab, which led in the past in 2009, I believe, to a dramatic drop in funding?

PL: It is true that the CAP [Consolidated Appeals Process] this year is badly funded. We do have a CAP for an appeal for the next coming three years. And basically, the strategy of the humanitarian community is, number one, provide life-saving assistance to the people in need. But, number two, promote longer-term solution, and also build the capacity of the population to resist the next shocks. This is what we are calling the resilience agenda. 

The current funding today allows the humanitarian effort primarily to focus on lifesaving operation. But it hasn't really turned that it maintains community to build resilience. This is one of the reasons why I do believe that the gains we have observed over the last two years still remain fragile—are reversible—and would there be a new severe shock, the population would not be prepared. That's primarily the impact. 

Now, it is also true that there are some areas in the country where providing assistance without presence or monitoring is more difficult, especially because we are not involved in the same scale of lifesaving operation. 

JL: You mentioned the CAP, which is the funding tool of the United Nations, the broader humanitarian community. For the first time ever, this CAP was launched for a three-year period covering 2013 through 2015. I understand that this is meant to increase predictability of the response with the objective to strengthen the longer-term resilience of the population. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the rationale behind this change from one-year to a three-year funding period? 

PL: As you said, the rationale is to say that if we want to go beyond saving lives, and if we want to build the capacity of the population to resist to further shock, we have to go beyond a cycle of 12 months. This is the reason why we have told the international community that we will have a three-year agenda. The three-year agenda should allow us to promote a more durable solution. 

This is true when it comes to the resilience of people food insecure in country, but it is also the same for the internally displaced people. The consolidated appeal clearly stated it is time to promote durable solutions for the displaced people in country, and you cannot promote a durable solution in a cycle of 12 months. It is, hence, important that we break the way of doing traditional business, and that we invest in the long-term.

JL: But, at the same time, and in view of the UNDP compound bombing on June 19 of this year, and the subsequent unrelated withdrawal of the international medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières in August, would you say that the security situation is conducive today to this kind of longer-term programming and the expansion of humanitarian aid in the country?

PL: There is no doubt that the security situation remains challenging, and that we are operating in an environment which is not risk free. That’s the starting point, and that is also the reason why, while operating in a country like Somalia, we need to invest in security to allow partners to operate. I do believe that today we operate more in Mogadishu than we have ever done before. There are many other cities in the country where humanitarian partners or development partners can operate. 

It is true, however, that the attack on June 19 has stalled the process of scaling up the United Nations' presence in country, and stalled the process of scaling up activities. Over the last few months, we have looked at enhancing the [security] measures. That's the reason why I'm confident that the agencies will again be able to beef up the program in favor of the Somali population in the coming few months. 

JL: When you say that we have to invest in security, do you mean that humanitarian actors have to invest in productive security measures or to better invest in ensuring acceptance of their activities in the field?  Or are you referring to the broader environment and investing in security in Somalia as such?

PL: I think the broader environment has been recently commented [on] and debated at the Security Council, and the international community will certainly come out with a new resolution providing more resources to AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] and to the Somali government. 

My point is more related to the humanitarian operations. We do need to improve being more accepted by the population. We do need to make local authorities more responsible to ensure that there is an environment conducive for the humanitarian partners. And all this would also have to be done by a certain number of “passive protection” or security measures the agencies will have to invest in. 

JL: When we talk about acceptance of humanitarian actors, we also talk about issues of perception by the communities in Somalia, by the armed groups who control some territory. In that respect, do you think that the relatively recent decision, resolution of the UN Security Council, that instructed structural integration of the UN mission in Somalia, which means that you, as the humanitarian coordinator, you will be the deputy of the political leadership of the mission. Do you think this will have an impact on issues of perception by armed groups including al-Shabaab, in the sense that you might be perceived as associated with a political force that might be viewed by some as partisan, in this context? 

PL: We will need to remain extremely aware about the perception of the humanitarian partners vis-a-vis the Somali population. Now, the Security Council resolution you are referring to says also that, when it comes to humanitarian assistance to the population, this assistance has to remain impartial, independent, and neutral. I also do believe that when it comes to the humanitarian agenda, the humanitarian coordinator will not respond to a political office, but will continue to respond to the emergency response coordinator. So, it is important to bear in mind that the humanitarian agenda will not be subordinated to political decisions, especially if we want also to apply the letter and the spirit of the latest Security Council resolution. 

JL: Yet as we are talking about issues of perception, do you have some room to maneuver in the context of a structurally integrated mission? Do you have room to take measures to differentiate the humanitarian community from the UN political mission, in terms of location of offices, for instance? 

PL: The humanitarian country team is not located with the mission—temporary, yes, currently in Mogadishu, but this has been a temporary measure related to the June 19 attack in Mogadishu. But traditionally, UN agency funded programs will have separate compounds in Mogadishu, as it is the case in many other places in the country. So, the short answer is yes, as the humanitarian coordinator, I can't sit with OCHA or any other agencies. 

JL: During the 2011 famine in Somalia, we saw a large response by actors who take no part in established humanitarian coordination mechanisms. I'm thinking in particular about some Muslim charities or aid coming from some Muslim countries, the coordination of which was handled in a quite ad-hoc manner by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. And this coordination system back then operated in parallel with the traditional UN-led coordination system. Are there still two separate coordination mechanisms in Somalia, and if yes, how is the dialogue going between these different actors?

PL: I wouldn't say that there are two parallel coordination mechanisms. There are coordination mechanisms which are complementary. When it comes, for example, to a given sector, the health sector, the coordinator of this sector will have to be aware of what the overall needs are, what the current response is, and what is the remaining gap. That means a full awareness also of what these Islamic charities are doing in this given sector. 

So, this coordination, which was very strong at the peak of the famine response, still continues in certain sectors. And, as the humanitarian coordinator, I remain also in close contact with representatives of the OIC—the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation.

JL: And is the OIC still playing a role in coordinating some of these actors?

PL: Not all the partners are in country, less are in country for the time being, but the OIC still continues to play this role in Somalia. 

JL: Well, Philippe, thank you very much for being with us today on the Global Observatory, and good luck. 

PL: Thank you very much.

About the photo: A refugee camp in Somalia, August 2011. (IHH)


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