I am not the first humanitarian to owe an apology to the people of Somalia. Somalia is one of my go-to catastrophes. Have an audience and need an example? The all-purpose Somalia does the trick: starvation, war, GWOT, counter-terrorism legislation, diversion of aid, refugees, ethnic conflict, climate change, cholera, co-opted aid agencies, murder/kidnapping of aid workers, displacement etc etc.
Somalia is no longer a nation but an archetype of a certain kind of nation, joining (depending on the day) South Sudan, DRC or CAR in a string cite of intractable, unfathomable brutality, drought, destitution and conflict. These are the contexts that substantiate the humanitarian case for why delivering compassionate aid to others is a necessary part of our world. They nourish our system just as we feed theirs. (And by way of confession, I talk about Somalia though I’ve never been there. Again, I’m not the first humanitarian to take that license.)
I recently did work that involved taking a closer – though geographically removed (Nairobi) – look at the situation in Somalia, now mired in the yet another staggering drought, only five years removed from the 2011/12 crisis (drought, conflict…) that killed upwards of 250,000 Somalis. At first, nothing I saw or heard challenged my narrative of Somalia the profoundly a tragic context. In blunt terms: one of the worst places on Earth. Think about that: me declaring it one of the worst places on Earth.
In the course of those interviews, though, I began to notice another story – Western aid workers recounting how the ‘mood’ of the people – seems quite different. Experienced humanitarian hands used the term ‘optimistic’ to describe how many Somalis felt. Not what I was expecting, and sufficiently weighty to pierce my own confirmation bias.
Further reinforcement? A recently published set of surveys from (the excellent) Ground Truth shows a full 35 percent of Somali respondents felt that life is improving ‘very much’ for people in Somalia, while another 41 percent said it was ‘mostly’ improving. In fact, only 6 percent answered that it wasn’t.
Not convinced? Back home, I stumbled across the recent National Geographic issue (November 2017) on happiness, including findings from the World Happiness Report. This scientific study ranks Somalia in 5th place in Africa, quite distant from the other members of my string cite of misery. South Sudan placed 37th, and CAR was 44th – dead last. Here’s a stunner of a finding: Somalia yielded a higher ‘daily happiness’ rating than either the UK or USA. Most of Eastern Europe wasn’t even close.
We need to let that sink in. We really need to think hard about the looping narratives by which we define Somalia, yet another narrative divide between a the perceptions of an international aid community looking down and a people looking up. For me, our unchallenged authority to problematize Somalia needs to be at the center of the localization agenda (displacing the turf war over funding?). Note: it is a power that fits well with our proverbial humanitarian hammer’s bias in seeing a world of nails.
Conclusion? The redistribution of power within the humanitarian system should be judged by percentages of funding flows and by the inability of the external system to reduce a country such as Somalia to conflict, corruption, drought, crisis and death. Absent that shift, we will continue to miss the opportunity to tap into the optimism felt by so many of Somalis, to explore with them more inspired options for international action in times of crisis. And in this, Somalia is not alone.
[This post was updated (a number of small edits) on December 23rd]
Addendum December 27th. I came across this as I rushed to the supermarket on Christmas Eve, a few recipe-saving purchases for the next day’s big dinner.
Some messages are universal, meaning they resonate at the level of the nation or society and for each and every individual. As the localization agenda evolves, I look forward to the ‘local’ finding different ways to say Here we are!