A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
As key governments and institutions from the region and the wider Islamic and Western world gather in London on 23 February 2012 to review their approach to the crisis in Somalia, this paper highlights the need for more effective international engagement with the country’s ongoing humanitarian emergency.
More than six months after the UN declared a famine, over 31 per cent of the population remains in urgent need of assistance, an escalation of the conflict is still forcing thousands of civilians from their homes, and expulsions and insecurity are making it increasingly difficult for aid agencies to reach those in need.
While responsibility for this situation lies first and foremost with Somali warring factions, the international community has also been at fault. Policies focused more on international security concerns than on the needs, interests, and wishes of the Somali people have inadvertently fueled both the conflict and the humanitarian crisis. An internationally backed escalation of regional military intervention since late 2011 presents grave risks for the civilian population and their access to assistance, which foreign governments and multilateral institutions have been slow to respond to. A dangerous conflation of humanitarian assistance with international security and state-building initiatives in Somalia, including counter-terrorism efforts, has fed perceptions among opposition groups that aid agencies are proxies of Western governments, further shrinking humanitarian space.
It is unclear how long the current period of intense conflict across much of southern Somalia will continue. But we do know that as long as it does, the food crisis will persist in the affected areas. If millions of people in need are to benefit fully from the aid efforts of Somali civil society and international agencies, more systematic account must be taken of the humanitarian fallout of regional and international political and security initiatives. More coherent strategies are needed from regional, Western and Islamic stakeholders, focused on supporting inclusive Somali-led reconciliation and peace-building, while scaling up efforts to increase humanitarian access and coordination, and to build Somali resilience to future shocks.
The London conference’s success must be judged on whether it results in:
- Actors from the region, the West, and the Islamic world using their influence with all relevant parties to ensure broader access to humanitarian assistance, while upholding humanitarian principles. This should take place alongside donor governments and aid organizations scaling up both humanitarian and longer-term resilience programming;
- Action to ensure that political and security strategies do not undermine humanitarian assistance; and
- Priority given to non-militarized 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.