A shift in focus: putting the interests of Somalis first

Conflict, Governance, Humanitarian, Rights

As delegates gather for the London Somali Conference, a new Oxfam briefing note calls for the country’s humanitarian and developmental needs to be the top priority. Regional Campaigns and Policy Manager Ed Pomfret gives his view here.


Somalia has gone through periods of being ignored by the international community and then subjected to intense interference. In the absence of a functioning national government for two decades, Somalis have tried various ways to organise the country. But sadly, so far these efforts have been overshadowed by conflict and power struggles at the national level, in which the interests of most Somalis have been disregarded.

On top of this, for much of 2011 and so far this year, people in Somalia have been struggling to cope with the worst food crisis the country has faced in decades. Estimates of the number of people who have died as a result of this varies, but it’s thought that about 100,000 people have lost their lives in the past few months.

Adding to this, 2.4 million people are still in need of urgent aid while 325,000 children are still suffering from acute malnutrition. People are fleeing fighting and the food crisis. Many have lost all they own and risk their lives daily to seek safety, food, water and shelter.  The situation remains very bleak.

There are several factors that have led to this terrible humanitarian situation: failed and poor rains, high food prices, conflict, entrenched poverty, lack of access and a lack of investment in marginalized areas. 

The cause of the problems Somalia faces lies primarily in the country itself where warring factions are accused of impeding and diverting aid flows. But policies of other countries have also had a major impact. Policies focused more on international security concerns than on the needs, interests and wishes of the Somali people have inadvertently fuelled both the conflict and the humanitarian crisis.

On 23 February, the UK Government will host the London Somalia Conference to try to address some of the issues facing Somalia. Senior representatives from over 40 governments and organisations will come together aiming to deliver a new international approach to Somalia. The people at the meeting say they want to discuss a long list of issues: security, political process, local stability, counter-terrorism, piracy, humanitarian issues, and international coordination.

But in discussing these problems the international community is yet again ignoring the voices of the Somali people. Somalia is much more than just terrorism and piracy.

Somali people we speak with tell us they want to go about their daily lives, free from the brutal disruption of war and famine, where they could earn a secure income to afford to feed their families everyday and send their children to school. They’re asking the international community to prioritise meeting the basic needs of Somalis immediately, so that they can recover their lives and dignity and build their country back from two decades of conflict. 

Hadija,* 50, from Galgadud region, Somalia for example says “The international community should help the jobless youth and generate employment and vocational skills training in order to dissuade the youth from joining the criminal activities. We need support to strengthen local and community-owned administrations, and help us to build schools and hospitals. What Somalis need is to bring sustainable peace and security, allowing women and children to live without fear” 

In a new report, A shift in focus: putting the interests of Somalis first, Oxfam is highlighting some of the key issues the country is facing based on the organisation’s 40 years experience working in the country and the knowledge of our partners and colleagues in the country:

  • Somalia is still facing a catastrophic humanitarian emergency. While drought conditions are improving in some parts of the country, renewed fighting is forcing people to flee their homes and farms to neighbouring countries or other parts of the country.
  • Rather than bringing peace and stability, decades of international intervention, driven by security and counter-terrorism concerns, has inadvertently fuelled instability and increased humanitarian needs.
  • In Somalia, the lines have blurred between humanitarian and military intervention, compromising the independence of aid agencies to deliver vital assistance to those who need it most. 
  • A new approach to Somalia is urgently needed. Somali women and men are asking for a greater say in efforts to bring about peace and security in their country. After more than 20 years of outside intervention that has failed to resolve the conflict, the international community must support a peace process that includes Somalis and reflects their needs, interests and wishes. The world’s response to terrorism must not make things worse for Somalis trying to live a normal life. More conflict will not solve conflict in one of the world’s most fragile states.  

The report contains detailed recommendations for what should happen and highlights that the London conference should be judged against these three main issues which them will determine whether international efforts ultimately support the interests of Somalis:

  1. Countries and institutions in the region, the West and the Islamic world must use their influence with all relevant parties to ensure broader access of Somalis to the humanitarian aid they need, while upholding humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and independence.. This should take place alongside governments and aid organisations scaling up both humanitarian and longer-term resilience programming;
  2. The conference must take action to ensure that political and security strategies do not undermine delivery of humanitarian aid. We need a renewed international drive to allow unrestricted, independent humanitarian access to those who need lifesaving aid and support to rebuild their lives independent from military or security strategies; and
  3. Prioritising non-militarised long term solutions to the conflict and humanitarian crisis, ensuring that a wide section of the Somali population including women is engaged in the process of developing these solutions.

There will be no lasting solution to Somalia’s problems unless it is owned by the Somali people. Decades of international interference focused primarily on security and counter terrorism concerns have inadvertently fuelled instability and increased humanitarian needs. The international community can play a positive role, but it must support Somali-led solutions putting the interests of Somalis first.

Download the report

A shift in focus: putting the interests of Somalis first

Author: Ed Pomfret
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.