Tag Archives: Somalia

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!


2013: Goodbye to an Ominous Year

I have posted a rather depressing rumination on 2013.  See the Huffington Post UK site.  Here’s a teaser:

Though certainly depressing, the observation that 2013 was a bad year is fairly unimportant. More worrisome is the prospect that 2013 signals a dangerous trend, even while experts tell us there has never been so much peace in the world. I see a mounting number of places that have reached a critical mass of disrespect for international law and universal ideals, or their outright rejection; and where rudimentary compliance is no longer deemed useful.

No Mo’ Waste

Just returned to work from two weeks of holiday.  Did the staycation in London, including a trip to the Olympics to watch the USA basketball team annihilate a surprisingly good Nigerian team, and then a few days in the charming English countryside of Devon, which was full of last-minute deals on cottages because the predicted tourist hordes frightened so many people away.

So you’ll have to excuse this rather quick post, as my inbox appears to have been consuming too much product from proud Games sponsors like McD’s, Coke and Cadbury (two thumbs up to sleb chef Jamie Oliver for calling out God, in the earthly form of David Beckham, for endorsing the junk food industry).

Sure am glad Mitch Romney didn’t pick Mo Farah for veep.  He could run for prime minister and win about now.  Taking gold in both the 5K and 10K had to be a top-3 highlight of this Olympics.  Heart.  It reminded me of Lasse Virén, one of those pieces of trivia that has stuck in my head for an inexplicably long time.  He did the same thing in 1972.  And then again in ’76.

Anyway, the issue here is Mo.  He’s from Somalia.  He moved to the UK and managed to clock one of the great sporting accomplishments of this young century.  The question:  what if he hadn’t left Somalia?  The answer is pretty clear.  Remember “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”?  Remember those ads?  I think they somehow played a role in my choosing this career.

Is “terrible” enough of a term to describe the waste of human potential in places like Somalia?  What is the world missing?  What are the equivalent achievements in the sciences to Mo Farah’s double gold?  A vaccine for TB?  Maybe even we could dream bigger, like a formula for cold fusion, or an end to Jersey Shore (and Geordie Shore, because somebody over here thought the original was simply too good not to spin off)?   Don’t we undermine the very idea of human dignity when the leaders in places like Somalia or Congo are thought of as nothing more than ineffective, tribal or corrupt?

To answer that question, I’ll quote from a recent essay on Congo posted by a buddy of mine, Ed  Rackley:  The loss of human lives and potential in the Congos, Haitis and Afghanistans of the world amount to much more than the personal and political failings of national leaders; they are calculated criminal acts. Crimes against humanity of a lesser degree than genocide, yes, but surely the act of trapping entire populations in cages of illiteracy, hunger and constant insecurity for decades, even generations, should be punishable.

The Rest of the Story

When I get nostalgic for folksy American journalism, I think of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” broadcasts.  In his rather unique delivery, Harvey would tell some story, hiding until the end the identity of its protagonist.  That was the surprise that transformed the rest.  Like a story about a kid who was so scared of heights, he was afraid to get on a playground swing.  The poor lad would have been mercilessly teased and abused a child, crying to his mama on a daily basis.  And then (after the commercial break!) Harvey would reveal that child to have grown up to become somebody like Orville Wright or Yuri Gagarin.

Now Saturday’s Observer brings us similar broadcast.  A fading superpower rides the high and mighty humanitarian horse of generosity, compassion and moral imperative into crisis. The good nation sends heavyweight envoys to demonstrate commitment.  They make thoughtful, pained pronouncements on the terrible suffering of the innocents.  The good nation scolds other actors into stepping up the response.   The good nation even organizes a conference to help stabilize the country, because it’s a very messy place.  Then, lo and behold, it turns out there is oil to be found underneath that mess; a failed state whose failure doesn’t bode well for extraction industries based in the good nation.  The countries?  The UK and Somalia.  “And now you know the rest of the story.  Paul Harvey.  Good day.

I doubt very much that The Rest of the Story broadcasts would have lasted over thirty years if they contained such an anti-climactic finish as that one.  Sorry, you probably saw in coming.  And I have no doubt there will never be a self-contained “rest” of the story for Somalia. 

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s International Development Secretary, strenuous denied the accusation, awarding the Observer’s journalist “the prize for the most cynical piece of journalism this century”. 

Unfortunately, sexy accusastions resonate a lot better than predictable denials.  (Odd, isn’t it, that the one thing retractions don’t have is traction?). Somalis will be repeating for two generations that we humanitarians were sent to their country because of the oil. Here’s Bashir Goth’s take on it:  “No politician and especially a British for that matter flaunt naked objectives. They have to be sugar coated with diplomacy and altruism.”  So billions of dollars of work is reduced to the colorful exterior of an M&M.

Apologies for repeating the message of the previous blog.  But humanitarian don’t need more nails in the coffin of our perceived integrity.  As if the good doctor were not enough.  A government like the UK working to advance its military, economic and security interests is, well, what a government like the UK is supposed to do.  

What is maybe more interesting is the rest of the story.  We humanitarians are often in search of our own oil, in search of the donations we are able to extract from our (marketing claims of an effective) presence in the Horn crisis.  Humanitarianism is increasingly constructed on this basis of extraction and exploitation.  Using misery to mine gold.  That doesn’t mean it fails to deliver good.  Ditto for the UK government in Somalia.  But we need to make sure Somalis like Goth aren’t writing the same thing about us.

The Good Doctor Calls

“Dr. Shakeel Afridi is the unsung hero of the war on terror.”  So sings U.S. Congressional Representative Dana Rohrabacher in nominating Afridi for the Congressional Gold Medal.  (You can read his full speech here).   Humanitarians are well familiar with Dr. Afridi’s exploits, though perhaps somewhat less likely to heap praise:  Afridi is and will continue to be the unsung cause of a lot of deaths.

 Who is Afridi?  He’s the medical doctor who engineered a fake vaccination campaign in a certain part of Pakistan, allowing him to enter the house of Planet Earth’s #1 most wanted bearded man.  It was the good doctor’s intelligence that supported the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  In essence, Afridi did for the widely held (and wildly exaggerated) belief that we humanitarians are spies or soldiers what Monica Lewinsky did for rumors of Bill Clinton’s philandering.  So when the al-Shabaab militia group in Somalia accuses UN agencies and NGOs of being the enemy, using that as an excuse to expel vital aid organizations from famine-stricken areas of Somalia, it is easy to label the Shabaab callous or insensitive or even murderous, but you can’t label them nutters.

 Afridi’s exploits create a shot heard round the world, the well-hyped example which transforms an obscure event into common knowledge.  I have a feeling it will live on.  For anybody with a sense of skepticism or suspicion, for people who need to trust their doctor, it’s a simple confirmation  that humanitarians aren’t what they appear to be.  Confirmation that the conspiracy theorists, gossipers, rumor mongers, and anybody else with a interest in stopping aid work aren’t just people with a loose screw. 

 About the only upside is this:  if people only suspect that we are secretly working for the CIA, maybe they won’t notice all the other ways in which we humanitarians do the bidding of others, be it a specific government, institutional donor, or that amorphous bogeyman, Global Power.  Thanks, Dr. Afridi, for improving our street cred as spies.

Birthday Declaration

On this morning’s BBC Radio 4 broadcast Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, talked about the situation in Somalia.

Presenter – But as long as there is no effective government in Somalia, it’s very difficult to see how it will be sorted out […] and I quote ‘ Britain is going to deepen its involvement in Somalia’ is that right?

Mitchell – Well it’s right that we should deepen our involvement because Somalia is a very direct threat to the security of the UK.

Not content with explaining Britain’s commitment to saving lives in Somalia, Mitchell thought it important to scare us with this factoid:  there are probably more British passport holders in Somalia training to be terrorists than in any other country in the world.  

What?!  Security used to justify aid?  OK. Cue it up.  Here comes another pissy rant about “blurring of the lines”.  About how if something like food aid is in the interests of British national security then it will be in Al Shabab’s interest to block it.  About the ultimate arch villian of all aid workers, the dreaded “erosion of humanitarian space”. (Note for you blog fans who are not insiders: we’ve easily passed the million mark on publications, conferences, workshops and papers discussing the erosion of humanitarian space.  My research has shown that any actual erosion is the consequence not of aid’s politicization but of all the people who left aid work on the ground – you know, giving stuff to victims – in order to talk incessantly about why they can’t give stuff to people.).

Anyway, you guessed wrong.  I’m going cold turkey.  No more banging on about the fact that the military is building schools to win hearts and minds. Here’s a quote from my reflections on MSF’s 40th birthday, posted yesterday:  It is now, in middle age, that we acquire the maturity to accept what has always been true: it is ridiculous to expect governments, rebel groups, insurgents, criminal syndicates or national armies to adopt the benevolent positioning of a charitable organisation, and that the abuse of humanitarian aid is an enduring and inevitable component of the landscape in which we operate.

You should read the full piece, here at the Huffington Post (UK edition).  Shameless plugging.  Here’s another.  MSF published a new book, called Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, which the French think is a catchy title.  The book delves into MSF’s compromise, the well-hidden part of our work where we “angels of virtue” (my favorite Paul Theroux term) sacrifice principles like independence and integrity at the altar of access, in order to deliver aid in perverted landscapes like Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Congo (or, more cynically, to ensure our own institutional relevance). 

You want proof of the book’s quality?  They didn’t accept my proposed submission.

Happy holidays to everyone.  Have a great new year.  We’ll be back, bigger and badder and funnier and more provocative than ever in 2012.  Sound familiar. That’s right friends, I have become aid itself, promising to finally get it right if you please please please keep believing in us.


I blogged a while ago on the response of our aid industry to the “perfect storm” of emergency appeal factors — er, I mean, the perfect storm of factors causing the crisis in Somalia. I felt rather smug about waxing ethical on the way aid agencies dumbed down this incredibly complex crisis to drought drought and more drought, with a hint of livestock mortality.

Then, about five weeks ago, Dr. Unni Karunakara (MSF’s International President) stirred the pot with an opinion piece on the Guardian website, decrying the overly simplistic messaging of us NGOs. (In a related article, one journalist even quoted him as calling it a “con”!). There was quite a diplomatic reaction within the UK aid community, muted of course by the judicious desire to avoid a public spat.

Fundraisers and comms people, along with their CEOs, expressed concerns about the effect of “truthful” messaging that highlight the complexity and difficulties of providing aid, though of course denied any suggestion of having pumped the public with overly simplistic notions of causality ( innocent victims preserved) and of aid success (innocent NGOs as well). Return fire even included the smack of moralistic bleating, allegations MSF’s message would reduce public confidence and hence reduce donations and hence reduce the number of living Somalis. Something to that effect. Bleating aside, it’s a worthwhile discussion . The aid industry is stuck on the tricky question of whether the ends justify the means, because we know that an effective response to the crisis in Somalia will require massive funding of the sort dependent upon public generosity.

It wasn’t until I read (somewhat belatedly) this blog on AlertNet, that I realized what was bothering me with the entire discussion. The pros and cons of our messages on Somalia were being squeezed through the lens of fundraising. Thank goodness for Dominic Nutt of World Vision, who said something that might have gotten him a right bollocking in many agencies: that we have censored ourselves on issues related to politics. I’d take that further. What gives us the right to say anything about Somalia that fails on so many levels to inform our publics? That fails to help people here in the safe world understand even one tenth of what the suffering is about, staring at your wasting children in that horror of a war and depredation zone? Or that fails to advocate forcefully for access or to denounce the obstruction of groups and governments alike? No, the terms of discussion reinforced the progressive subjugation of our voice to the twin masters of the fundraising appeal and our brand identity.

Funnily enough, I heard a few comments from operations people in other organizations, and they actually praised Unni’s message. Not for its own oversimplification (making it seem “impossible” to deliver aid in Somalia), but because they were sick and tired of the sanitized messages spurting from the top floor of their own offices. Seems I belong on the top floor myself. I got locked into a closed-termed debate around income, pontificating that integrity in messaging is the only way to safeguard our publics in the long term. As if that wasn’t the smallest of reasons for integrity! For that; for losing sight of what really mattered in our voice; for becoming an aid bureaucrat: Mea culpa.

The New Young Turks

Having finally trudged through the post-holiday backlog of email, I ignored the pile of freshly printed reading to surf the crisis in the Horn of Africa.  I found an Al Jazeera story which I would call interesting on two counts.  First, for the fact of it.  And second, for the invisibility of that fact (i.e., that even people following the aid biz didn’t seem to notice).

The story is a fairly simple one, and I recommend reading the author’s full analysis. In August, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a camp for starving IDPs in Mogadishu.  Can you imagine being equally unaware of a Sarkozy or Cameron visit to Somalia?  Or a UN ambassador like Angelina Jolie?  I mean, there’s more coverage of Obama eating a hotdog (actually, a chilidog, which is definitely more macho).   The visit was the move of a true world leader.  Not only the first non-African head of state to see Somalia in over 20 years, Erdogan took his wife and daughter, a clear statement that the war-torn capital of Somalia is not necessarily the Call of Duty shooting gallery we make it out to be.

The fact of this visit, though, is more interesting than the media non-coverage.  Here is the new direction not just of Turkey, but of the next wave of world players.  Countries like India, China, Qatar, Brazil and South Africa.  Countries that are heading to Africa for profit, influence, minerals and for the prestige long accorded to powerful Western nations/leaders doing the philanthropic waddle.  Erdogan’s visit was accompanied (already some weeks ago) by roughly $250M in Turkish donations to the crisis, mostly from the Turkish public.  I think (too late for dinner to research it) that’s more than UK public donations.

That fact alone speaks of a world that is changing faster than we imagine or plan.  I think of non-Western governments increasing their humanitarian spend, but actual public compassion and donation?  That’s supposed to be our Western genome, a unique manifestation of our goodness and superiority.  Apparently, there are even Turkish celebrities who play the humanitarian ambassador role, meaning you can see non-terrorist Omar Sharif looking guys visiting camps as well.  (Please don’t comment, I know Sharif wasn’t Turkish or a terrorist and I don’t really believe that all guys with thick black mustaches look alike).

To me, our Western thinking on aid still hasn’t grasped the sheer acceleration of the entry of other actors – governmental donors, aid organizations, and concerned publics – to the global arena of humanitarian action.   These actors don’t have colonial histories, don’t suffer the white man’s burden, don’t seek to moralize about human rights violations, and don’t necessarily subscribe to a model of aid based on charity.  All good news.  I’m thinking there could even be a job in this after MSF, working for one of the new global humanitarian leaders.