As aid agencies attempt to scale up assistance to thousands of people in south-central Somalia, controlled by Al-Shabab militia, IRIN asked the Somali Red Crescent Society, which has been active in the region for the past four decades, how it operates.
“The thing is to be absolutely transparent in your dealings with Al-Shabab and other organizations [Al-Shabab is not a monolithic entity] and not politicize your work in any way," said Abdulkadir Ibrahim of the society. “That is the advice we would like to give to other NGOs who want to work here.”
The Somali Red Crescent, helped by more than 4,000 volunteers, runs operations in south and central Somalia. “We have been running OTP [outpatient therapeutic feeding programme] centres there for two to three years.”
In early 2010, humanitarian organizations were still able to function in many Al-Shabab-held areas because of good dialogue, “built on long-established relationships within local communities, of which local Al-Shabab leaders were a part”, pointed out UN Monitoring Group’s new report on Somalia.
But the situation shifted dramatically by mid-2010. “The Al-Shabab shura [consultative body], based in Mogadishu [the capital], Kismayo [port southwest of Mogadishu] and Baidoa [capital of Bay region, now in the famine zone], had consolidated, reorganized and extended its reach far beyond Somalia’s major urban centres,” said the report.
In the Middle and Lower Shabelle regions - now in the famine zone - the Al-Shabab and its factions continue to hamper humanitarian operations. The UN report said even in early 2011, it had been demanding a payment of US$1 per child per week to attend school and even a payment from teachers. The Al-Shabab factions have also been known to impose taxes on aid organizations.
But NGOs with strong community support continued to function throughout 2010, said Ibrahim. “We have never been asked to pay anything; we do not even pay tax for transporting aid on the roads.”
Before each aid consignment is transported outside Mogadishu, the Somali capital, Ibrahim said, the organization makes contact with whatever faction controls the route they intend to ply. “They go through all our papers and we explain what we are doing and why we are doing it and we are given the go-ahead.”
Ibrahim said because they had been around since 1963, survived the civil war which began in 1991 and the last big famine in 1991-92, they were “part of the community and much-respected and we believe in dialogue. We have constant dialogue with whoever is in charge in the areas we operate about the people’s needs and what we are doing.”
He said his agency had picked up signs of the famine but “we did not have the capacity to respond as we saw the needs becoming even greater”.
Earlier this year, Ibrahim said he had seen more than 200 people queue for help by 7.30am at an OTP centre in Lower Juba. “We are now trying to focus only on health issues and recruiting nurses from within the community.”
There are trained primary healthcare workers in the community, he said. Several NGOs and UN agencies have run workshops to develop skills over the years, as Somalis fled the civil war.
Lack of good roads was one of the bigger impediments in transporting aid in a timely manner.
The Red Crescent is feeding about 160,000 people a month's supply of rice, oil and pulses across Somalia, said Ibrahim. “A Land-Cruiser takes about a day-and-a-half to travel a distance of 300km from Mogadishu; a truck laden with food aid takes about three to four days.”
The organization prefers to fly aid directly to Mogadishu as it then has to deal with fewer lines of authority. “We don’t like the overland route from the Kenyan border as we have to travel from Transitional Federal Government-run areas along the border into Al-Shabab areas. Crossing the lines from a TFG area into an Al-Shabab area is very difficult [involving a lot of negotiations at both ends].”
The UN Monitoring Group report noted: “The principal impediments to security and stabilization in southern Somalia are the Transitional Federal Government leadership’s lack of vision or cohesion, its endemic corruption and its failure to advance the political process. Arguably even more damaging is the government’s active resistance to engagement with or the empowerment of local, de facto political and military forces elsewhere in the country.”
At the moment, aid could do with some coordination in Somalia, said Ibrahim.
"We have so many NGOs, including a lot of Arab ones, coming into Somalia to help but no one seems to know where they should focus, where the needs are - they are all in Mogadishu trying to link with local NGOs - this is an emergency, we need the help but someone must coordinate," Ibrahim said.
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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions