If you’re happy and you know it…

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!


4 thoughts on “If you’re happy and you know it…”

  1. Dear Marc, thanks for this post. Five years ago I spent Christmas in Mogadishu. Although, I am no scrooge and love being at home with my family and friends at this time of year, Christmas in Mogadishu was on my happiest. Visiting nutrition centres and working with some of the most inspiring people I have ever met by day; gorging fresh lobster by night (I know…it was tasty though). During this and other visits with Concern Worldwide, I found Somalis long-suffering and tired, but optimistic and yes – happy. Comments like “that’s not guns you can hear Rachel – it is Mogadishu music, let’s dance!” sum up the mood pretty well.
    Although we need to be careful about over-emphasizing a more happy narrative. Last month in Geneva I was privy to a conversation between a Somali and an international (ie white) consultant. The Somali had presented on the health system in his country and, quite frankly, depicted a fairly grim picture, in need of many more millions of aid dollars. The consultant, however, challenged this and was keen to point out that –
    in terms of health – Somalia is one of the countries he is “most optimistic about”. So who to believe? The World Bank and other donors were also in the room – so clearly presenting misery, suffering (ie humanitarian needs) had a purpose. Later it transpired that the Somali ‘representative’ was in fact a diaspora who had only been back to Somalia once since the war; while the optimistic consultant had spent many years working in and on the context. It is a blurry one.
    Finally, when speaking about the fate of Somalia, it is important to mention Somaliland – a beacon of positivity in the region, and an enlightening example of what can be achieved [politically anyway] when a county is left relatively neglected by ODA. (Although, of course, no amount of optimism and self-reliance can help when drought hits, as it did so horrifically this year again).
    To conclude: I have many more happy than sad memories of my time in Somalia/Somaliland, and only wish more people in the humanitarian world had experienced the positivity I found in this beautiful country/ies.

  2. Thanks Rachel for sharing your experience. Good to point out that in referring to Somalia, the blog rather ridiculously lumps Somaliland in with the rest.

    Hope you are enjoying your holidays this year.

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