Today in London, 40 governments from around the world, the UN, African Union and others are gathering to discuss Somalia. According to the UK, the conference will chart “a new international approach to Somalia” on areas ranging from security and the political process to the humanitarian effort. Given that the country has been racked by conflict, state collapse, and poor governance for decades, and is only now precariously pulling itself out from the worst food crisis the world has seen this century, this effort to change course is welcome – overdue even.
But this isn’t the first international conference on Somalia, and judging by the statements of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, it is in danger of repeating previous mistakes. Fundamentally, the success of any shift in approach will depend upon whose interests are put first – those of the international community that will be assembled, or those of ordinary Somalis. Yet most of the talk so far has been about piracy, security or terrorism, rather than efforts to support long-term peace or food security.
Untangling political and humanitarian agendas
People are dying in Somalia because of restrictions on aid agencies, diversions and insecurity. There must be a concerted diplomatic push by those gathered – western governments, Somali politicians, the Gulf states, anyone with influence – to ensure that those who need assistance can access it. But they must go beyond this. While the issues related to access and assistance are primarily the fault and responsibility of the warring factions in the country, it is made worse by contradictory policies of major donors which fuse the aid and political agendas.
The blurring of boundaries between counter terrorist/ security strategies and humanitarian agenda endangers aid workers and aid supplies, and makes it harder for people in need to access assistance. This is particularly disappointing given the response of these same donors to Somalia’s ongoing food crisis was, even if late, generous and swift. In light of such hard economic times for western countries in particular, this willingness to reach out to help those who were in danger of slipping through humanity’s safety nets was brave and welcome.
New military escalation in Somalia risks harming civilians and undermining efforts to recover from famine. Just last week the AU military force (AMISOM) and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) launched a major new offensive in an area where 400,000 people are living in densely populated camps. Ongoing fighting has forced thousands of people to flee already this year. There must be stringent accountability and oversight measures to prevent human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war by all parties to the conflict. Those attending the conference have the power and ability to make this happen for at least some of the forces fighting in the country.
Taking the long view: putting the interests of Somalis first
In Oxfam’s new report – A Shift In Focus: Putting the interests of Somali people first – we accept that ensuring communities can access immediate assistance, or encouraging the TFG and AMISOM to pay greater attention to avoiding harm to civilians, is no substitute for a longer term solution. As the Somali saying goes “the best bed a man can sleep on is peace”, so how can the conference chart a new international approach to this end?
Pretending that the Transitional Federal Government controls or is likely to control the whole of Somalia, never mind that it represents the views of all Somalis, is clearly not a credible approach. And if past experience in Somalia is anything to go by, interventions by regional governments are also very unlikely to lead to peace and stability.
Rather, the international community must prioritise non-militarised and sustainable solutions to the conflict and humanitarian crisis, in particular through ensuring that a wide section of the Somali population is engaged in the process of developing these solutions. This means properly involving civil society, not window dressing and ticking boxes, and building on successful Somali-led efforts, which have been inclusive of grassroots civil society and women in particular, to bring about peace and stability. It also, critically, means encouraging dialogue with everyone – and that means everyone, including moderate elements of armed groups.
Similarly, although piracy will preoccupy the minds of many of the delegates at the conference, they must realise that piracy in Somalia is a symptom of years of poverty and insecurity. But piracy – the oldest international crime and one that all nations have an obligation to act against – will not be stopped by purely punitive measures. It will continue to be an attractive and lucrative option until an inclusive political solution in Somalia is reached and the country is set on the path to development.
Today’s London conference is at serious risk of prescribing more of the same for Somalia. And this means the outcome will be more of the same: civil strife, piracy and regional insecurity. More importantly the Somali people will continue to be engulfed in a humanitarian tragedy, and the international community will increasingly find it difficult to treat the symptoms, never mind find a cure.