(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Interview with Jan Egeland, UN USG for Humanitarian Affairs

[Sudan] UN's Jan Egeland in Khartoum.
IRIN

The UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, spoke to IRIN about his impressions and what he hoped to accomplish, as he led a high-level UN mission to Somalia on 4 December. The mission was the first of its kind in nearly a decade.

QUESTION: This is the first mission at this level by the UN to Somalia in nearly a decade. What is significant about this visit?

ANSWER: It is indeed the first trip in a long time and it reflects several things. One – it has been a long period of political conflict and insecurity that has prevented much of the international work and high-level visits. But it has also been a neglected and forgotten conflict for too long. I think now, we in the international community are belatedly wanting to show our solidarity with the Somali peoples and also do our best to help them move to better times. Finally, I also come in recognition of the great work that has been undertaken by the NGOs and UN agencies that have been active for many years here, especially through the local staff and international staff here in Somaliland and in Somalia at large. They have been doing great things with very small resources. We hope now that we can attract more funding and more interest for a greater programme since the needs are so big here.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish on this short trip?

A: I hope to [raise] more international attention - more international funding - a new beginning for active international support for the efforts of the Somalis themselves. It is only the Somalis themselves - and I don't hide that fact when I meet the political leaders here - they themselves have to stop their old practices of fighting each other every time they have a problem. They have to learn how to do peaceful conflict resolution. That is the only way by which we also can help them help themselves.

Q: You visited a couple of returnee camps in Hargeysa. You saw the conditions these camps were in. What do you think is needed to alleviate those conditions?

A: Conditions are really very bad here. People live as badly in the camps as they do in Darfur [Western Sudan]. There is no difference at all. First, we saw two groups, one which had received hardly any assistance and another which is now receiving land from the government, schooling from the UN, and health and education from the international organisations. This is how we should be able to deal with all those coming, as a collaborative effort between local and national entities and the international community. Somaliland and Somalia at large have been receiving now hundreds of thousands of returnees that they had to accommodate with very small resources.

Q: Somaliland, as you just mentioned, has resettled hundreds of thousands of returnees with very little resources. What is your impression now of Somaliland since you have been there before?

A: I am very impressed with what has been done here. I had, in my capacity as a state secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1990s, many contacts with the Somaliland authorities. I donated the first satellite phone in Somalia to President Egal [late Somaliland President Muhammad Ibrahim Egal] and I have seen since that time how they have - largely through their resources and their own efforts - rebuilt Hargeysa and rebuilt the other destroyed cities and their country. So, they have organised themselves very well. But they do have a real problem by not being recognised by any other states and I urge them to do their utmost to accommodate all their neighbours because it will facilitate our work on the humanitarian and reconstruction and development front and, thereby, help them help themselves.

Q: You mentioned that one of your goals is to try and get more attention focused on Somalia. Other emergencies in the world have attracted a lot of attention. Is Somalia's problem the lack of interest by international powers?

A: That can be one of the factors. In a world full of competing emergencies and disasters, it really helps if there is an international locomotive that can help us bring attention - help us bring resources. I think the biggest challenge for Somalia has been the sense that it is a hopeless case of incomprehensible internal conflicts and there is nothing we can do. I think that is the wrong attitude because there is a lot we can do. Our assistance in Somalia has been remarkably effective and successful, and we have helped with very small resources - a large group of people and we can now do even more. I think now Somalia is turning a corner and we can, with the new political development, build on momentum - really build a peaceful future.

Q: A new transitional government has been established in Somalia. A president has been elected, a prime minister appointed and cabinet named, and they have already asked for support in terms of peacekeeping, demobilisation and disarmament. Do you think the international community should support this new government to establish itself in Somalia?

A: I think it is a false contradiction that has been built here that the new government says we cannot really establish ourselves or make peace before you assist us - and the international community says we cannot help you before you establish yourself and create peace. The two things have to happen in parallel. They [the government] have to show that this is a serious effort and the warlords and political clan leaders have to strike peace deals with each other. However, they cannot do this alone. There is too little to build on. They [need] help to train police, to train security forces, to build a justice sector, to build institutions [and] to build ministries. The UN is ready and we hope the donors are ready to help us help the Somalis.

Q: What do you think are the next steps that need to be taken to achieve that?

A: We need better coordination on the international side, just as they need better and more effective efforts on the Somali side. We have too many reconstruction and development assistance plans. There is the UN plan. There is a donor plan. There is an NGO plan. We need to have one comprehensive international effort and I think that can come in the light of a possible donor conference in Rome. I am glad to see that Italy and Sweden are working towards [putting] some time in the middle of next year. Then, we also need to have credible Somali institutions being established inside Somalia and local and regional peace agreements to be brokered. All of those things [need to be working] in parallel.

Q: How optimistic are you that you will be able to focus the necessary attention on Somalia and does your trip indicate a renewed interest in Somalia?

A: It is the first visit of this kind in a decade. I have been bringing in international media, both Arab and western. I will be briefing ambassadors in Geneva and New York. I will talk to donors, the media and my boss, Kofi Annan, but there is no quick fix to these things. This will only be a short-term effort, unless there is a follow up locally, nationally and by international partners - in the long term. It will take years really to build a peaceful and prosperous Somalia.

Today I would say that as much as the resource constraint and attention constraint, there is a security constraint. We have in Somalia, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, been individually targeted by extremist groups, which nearly made us leave Somalia completely. I would urge all those involved to do their utmost to defend us, so that we can build up our presence instead of decreasing it.

Q: You have in your delegation a representative of the Arab League. Is this part of your plan to involve the Arab League and try to solicit funds and interest from them in Somalia?

A: I have been working, as emergency relief coordinator, on an international scale, very hard to build a wider alliance of partners in assistance efforts. We are too much north/west and too little global, and yes, I work conscientiously and systematically now to involve Arab countries that have a lot of potential resources for Somalia [Somalia is member of both the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic States]. Having Al-Jazeera TV travel with me and filming continuously, I think, helps to draw the attention of the Gulf countries and elsewhere, from which we should also be able to attract resources.

Q: Any other thoughts?

A: I think I want to congratulate those who have been working here because when we say that it has been largely forgotten and neglected by the international community, it has not been forgotten and neglected by the NGOs, UN agencies, Red Crescent organisations - that had been working here. I would also like to congratulate the authorities here that had been doing much to prevent a much larger disaster. Hopefully, we can now get to draw the same attention to Somalia and the Somalis, as we were able to draw to Darfur and the Darfurians.

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