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National staff, local partners carry the load in a dangerous environment

[Somalia] The aftermath of an assassination attempt on Somalia’s President, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed in Baidoa, 18 September 2006. He escaped virtually unharmed but his younger brother was among the 12 reported casualties. Six attackers were killed in an e
The aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed in Baidoa. (Atosh/IRIN)

Years of violence have turned Somalia, particularly the capital, Mogadishu, into one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. Across the country, faction fighting, road-blocks manned by gunmen, kidnappings and killings have reduced humanitarian activity to a minimum, say aid workers.

Where operations continue, aid agencies increasingly depend on Somali staff to do the work.

According to a 2006 Overseas Development Institute Briefing Paper, 78 percent of aid workers who have been victimised because of their work are nationals of the host country - a number that more than doubled in 1997-2005.

"The incidence rate for internationals is stable or declining, while it is rising for nationals, particularly in the most dangerous contexts," the report said.

Somalia is the worst such situation, according to the report. "In both absolute and relative terms [with the exception of Iraq in 2003–2004], Somalia remains the most violent place for aid operations," the report notes.

Different approaches

The scale of needs and severity of the security situation have led to a variety of operational methods. Some apply what is sometimes called a ‘remote control’ approach.

Such agencies base their expatriate staff outside Somalia and local staff are left to act as implementers when insecurity is severe. Yet some agencies do not provide adequate security back-up, say local aid workers in Somalia.

Many have recruited Somali emigrants from the diaspora or promoted Somali nationals to be senior managers.

Others prefer what is referred to as ‘partnering’. These agencies do not have any staff, national or international, based in the country, but carry out their operations through local nongovernmental agencies, mostly civil society groups.

National staff carry the load

"In most cases we are on our own, with no back-up," a Somali working for an international agency said. "Many Somali staff working for international agencies are not entitled to evacuation; the best they will do is tell you to go to another town and lie low."

Analysts say national staff are the unsung heroes of the aid community, and agency managers say they are comfortable placing greater responsibilities on them in times of insecurity, yet some feel more like "the dispensable ones".

Photo: Awes Osman/IRIN
A displaced family returning to Mogadishu after they fled to Elasha settlement on the outskirts of the capital

"We have had people killed or kidnapped and it does not register because we are not expatriates," said one national aid worker, who requested anonymity. "I don't feel like a hero but more like a ‘dispensable object’."

Aid workers say national staff are often asked to go where international employees cannot go and if they question the decision, their jobs could be on the line. "We cannot even say, 'look, this is too dangerous'. We simply become the new targets," he added.

A national staff member of a multilateral aid agency said a colleague was abducted and held for more than a month. When he was released his agency let him go because he could no longer work in Mogadishu. "They could not even offer him another job," he added.

"Somalia magnifies the imperfections, the basic flaws in operationality in these kinds of situations," a Somalia analyst based in Nairobi told IRIN.

Hands-on or remote control?

The situation varies depending on the agency. Abdirashid Haji Nur, country director for Concern Worldwide, while admitting that national staff often face many difficulties, said not all agencies treated their employees the same.

Concern Worldwide has been working in Somalia since 1992.

"Yes there are agencies which are not as sensitive to the plight of the local staff as they should be, but it is not all bad," he said.

He said he had been running the operation without much interference for the past seven years. "I do get guidance when I request it, but my bosses give me a lot of leeway and that includes security issues," he said.

However, he said there was a need for agencies to involve national staff in the decision-making process. National staff are used as implementers without any input in the decision to undertake a given project or operation, "yet such decisions could have security implications for the staff and put them at risk".

Nur claimed opportunities for career advancement and training for local staff are "almost nonexistent". Expatriates need to give recognition to the contributions of their Somali colleagues and bring them into the system, he adds.

A United Nations staff member said the disparities between allowances given to expatriates and nationals doing the same work needed to be addressed. "We are by and large poorly paid and poorly compensated for the risks we are expected to take."

Photo: IRIN
A water tanker delivers much-needed supplies to displaced people south of Mogadishu, the capital

CARE spokeswoman, Bea Spadacini, told IRIN: "In some ways we don't need expatriates. We feel confident in the calibre of people we have on the ground. The lack of expatriate management in the field, while not ideal, is not affecting the quality of our programmes."

On issues of the safety of the staff, Spadacini said: "We take our cues from the staff. They know best when it's time to go."

The partnership model

In recognition of the Somali situation, and in some cases, by preference, some international agencies partner local agencies. This involves the foreign agency building trust and common goals with local agencies, and then providing funding and training to carry out programmes, allowing the international agency to have an impact without being on the ground, and to build local capacity.

''You're probably safer if you're from the place ... but anyone can get caught up in the crossfire.''

However, this approach "has been a hard sell", as donors typically find the model a "psychological and administrative challenge", according to the Somalia analyst.

Other agencies have begun recruiting Somalis from the diaspora and placing them in their home areas where they are thought to ‘fit in’ and have a better awareness of the context and its risks. "You're probably safer if you're from the place," an NGO official told IRIN. "Nonetheless, anyone can easily get caught up in the crossfire."

Most agencies will continue to depend heavily on national staff for most of their operations. "The heightened vulnerability makes the use of national staff even more important," said the analyst.

Security concerns continue

Despite the relative calm in Mogadishu and relatively stable security in other areas of the country since last week, aid agencies expect continuing difficulties in operating in and around the capital.

While the government was trying to resolve the situation militarily, a political process was also necessary, several sources said, echoing diplomatic calls including from the European Union and UN Security Council.

In addition, the extra needs caused by recent fighting are unlikely to be met by existing programmes, and NGOs and UN agencies want to increase their presence. Toby Kaye of Save the Children-UK told IRIN: "We want to go in there, but it's looking like it’s not yet conducive to operate." Starting a new programme in a new area entails greater security risks for NGOs than re-orienting a running project, he said. "You're putting yourself at higher risk in starting a new programme," Kaye said, as recruitment and contractual arrangements have to be set up and can be sensitive.

According to an NGO source, a critical issue is armed escorts in and around Mogadishu. Attacks, roadside bombs and assassinations take place on key routes. "There's a Catch-22 on who to use for escorts," he said, adding that government-aligned escorts can be targeted by insurgents while independent guards face forcible disarmament by TFG or Ethiopian forces.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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