Interview with Mark Bowden, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia

Mark Bowden, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia

28 November 2011 – In Somalia today, four million people are in urgent need of food, shelter and medical help while 250,000 people are at risk of starvation. Some 240,000 Somalis have left their homes and come to Mogadishu seeking help. The onset of Somalia’s rainy season brings increased risk of disease. And the ongoing conflict has hampered access to people in need.

But the international community’s response has been strong and substantial humanitarian aid has reduced mortality levels. In December, the UN will appeal for further funding to cover needs in 2012: the Consolidated Appeal Process for Somalia will aim to raise $1.5 billion for humanitarian aid.

Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, spoke about the challenges of working in the midst of a complex crisis to held people in need in Somalia.

UN News Centre: What’s the current humanitarian situation on the ground in Somalia?

Mark Bowden: Somalia is still going through its most critical period in terms of the famine that exists in major parts of the country and very acute food shortages caused by the drought in other parts of the country. So, at the moment Somalia has, really, two critical elements to the crisis. In Mogadishu, there have been a large number of IDPs, internally displaced persons, flooding in to the town which is putting pressure on support capacity and services. In the famine areas, we’re really working in a race against time to get assistance, and particularThe challenge in Somalia, as it has been in many other crises, is to keep hope access to food, to people in crisis.

UN News Centre: What has been achieved in the 100 days since famine was declared in parts of Somalia?

Mark Bowden: A great deal has been achieved. After a slow start – there were delays for a number of different reasons, partly because of conflict and other things – there’s been a steady increase in the levels of food that have been going in to the famine areas. There has already been quite a lot of work getting the supplementary food stuffs that are needed. We’re now seeing the other schemes, such as food voucher schemes and cash schemes [whereby those in need are provided with either food or cash to obtain food] beginning to take place, so I’m very hopeful that during November we will see an even larger increase in the overall level of assistance in famine-affected areas and also people’s access to that assistance.

UN News Centre: Somalia’s rainy season, has begun. What impact does that have on humanitarian operations and how is it dealt with?

A woman holds her young baby while queuing for food in Badbaado, a new camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mogadishu. Source: AU/UN IST/Price

Mark Bowden: The rainy season is important for a number of reasons. It means we should be getting a harvest in January, which will make a difference to the overall food situation. One of the major challenges of the rainy season is to get seeds into place in the main growing areas. That has started to happen. In fact, I understand from the Food and Agriculture Organization that the main seed distribution has taken place and that other organizations are still moving on seed distribution. What we need to ensure now is that there are people who will invest their labour and undertake the planting. But the rains also bring bad news, in that they bring problems in terms of disease. The spread of communicable diseases is increasing. For example, the major risk is malaria, which in the 1992 crisis was the big killer. So there are two challenges: one is that we ensure that we preserve people’s assets and livelihoods during this famine, and the second is that we help protect them from the massive risk of communicable diseases that occurs during the rainy season.

UN News Centre: How does the ongoing conflict on the ground affect humanitarian operations?

Mark Bowden: Conflict always affects people. Somalia’s civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict and that’s a clear problem. The second element of conflict is that it usually makes it more difficult for humanitarian organizations to work. There are more restrictions on their movement, everybody is suspicious of what’s going on, what’s happening, and therefore, the capacity for people to respond effectively is considerably diminished. And then, thirdly, there are potential problems in terms of disrupting the supply lines of food into famine areas. So those are the three big challenges that exist, and the more prolonged the conflict, the worse the impact will be on people.

UN News Centre: There has been an increase in funding in response to the humanitarian appeal for Somalia. Does that reflect growing global engagement with Somalia?

A boy at one of the newly established settlements for IDPs in Mogadishu. Source: AU/UN IST/ Price

Mark Bowden: Yes, I think there has been a major international response. In many places the plight of the Somali population has captured the public’s imagination. In the UK, where I come from, they’ve had one of the largest ever appeals for the Horn of Africa, but really led by Somalia, because the public at large understands full-well that even if it’s times of economic recession, even if there’s a counter-terrorist insurgency taking place, that you have to protect the individuals, to stop them from suffering. So it has struck a chord with the public in many countries. And I think the second thing is that a number of governments, and new donors amongst them, have stepped up to the mark in terms of recognizing their international responsibilities in this crisis. So, we are reasonably well-placed in terms of resources for this year but there are still gaps in some areas and we will also face a continued challenge in the coming year. I think it’s our job now to assure people that assistance is scaling up and is getting through, and that will be the key, to continuing resources for the coming year.

UN News Centre: How do you avoid having the international community losing interest in Somalia? Avoid donor fatigue, for example?

Mark Bowden: I think part of it is providing information, being able to report back on what’s happening and what’s been achieved. If people feel that Somalia is a no-hope case then people will withdraw assistance. And that’s far from being the truth. I mean there have been some quite remarkable achievements in addressing the most complex and difficult humanitarian emergency that the world has seen for some time.

UN News Centre: What about the Somalis themselves – how do you ensure that they remain engaged and not lose hope after so many years?

A woman and her 2-year old granddaughter wait to register at the Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Source: INTERNEWS

Mark Bowden: First of all, I think we shouldn’t ignore the role of the Somali diaspora, who have been the biggest support and safety net to Somalis on the ground. Diaspora support has been quite critical in terms of providing support to even the most remote and difficult areas to access. I think Somali communities have really rallied for this crisis.

On the ground, I think there are two issues to be concerned about. First of all, the movement of people has been highly disruptive. Somalis face displacement, not once or twice, but three times, and are pushed from pillar to post. And that, I think, is a terribly difficult humanitarian situation for them to deal with. In other ways, the government of Somalia and the other authorities across Somalia, have gradually become, not just more engaged, but more organized in their response and approach. And if we can maintain their commitment to support, from all parts of Somalia, and to make a difference in what is the biggest national crisis they’ve seen in many years, then I think we ourselves, the international workers, can make a difference.

UN News Centre: In an interview three years ago, you described the humanitarian situation in Somalia as the most complex crisis being dealt with at the time. How would you describe it now?

Mark Bowden: It has the same complexity! It sometimes gets more complex as bits of the country fragment, new groups emerge– but essentially, it’s the same complexity. It’s the depth of the crisis that has increased. We now have not just one of the world’s most complex crises, we have probably have the deepest and most acute crisis in the world.

UN News Centre: What impact do current Kenyan military activities in Somalia have on humanitarian operations on the ground?

Mark Bowden: Any increase in military activity is very worrying at this time when we're in the midst of a very critical humanitarian situation and in the midst of addressing famine. The main concerns are that the military operations can affect the possibilities of planting and agricultural production in famine-affected areas, and also will have an immediate impact on the cross-border operations that are taking place at the moment. Our real concern is that if it's a prolonged operation, then this will start to have a very major impact on the capacity to distribute food to the people most affected by famine.

Mark Bowden and colleagues travel via armoured vehicle through Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo credit: OCHA

UN News Centre: How does Somalia’s division into three semi-autonomous entities affect humanitarian operations?

Mark Bowden: There are more than three separate entities and that’s one of the challenges: that other groups have emerged in Somalia. I think that the challenge we face is convincing people that assistance is given on the basis of need and on individual need – that humanitarian assistance is not something that’s shared out proportionally in relation to the political landscape of the country, but that we ask everybody to take responsibility for allowing access to people in need wherever they are and whenever they need assistance.

UN News Centre: There have been reports that the Somali government has fired or suspended officials in recent weeks over missing food aid. How big a problem is food aid being diverted and what’s your view on the government’s action?

Mark Bowden: It is welcome when people take responsibility for actions. I think that’s extremely important. Diversion is, of course, a large problem in Somalia: assistance has been part of a war economy for many, many years – not just food aid, but all forms of assistance. And for that reason, within the UN, we’ve developed a very strong risk-management system that provides greater documentation, identifies the risks of giving assistance, and tries to mitigate those. So we don’t go in to this with our eyes shut. We go in to the crisis having developed stronger, hopefully more effective, systems to help us to mitigate the challenges to getting aid to people where they need it and the risk of diversion.

Humanitarian cargo arrives in Mogadishu. Since July, tons of food and other relief items have been distributed to thousands of people in Mogadishu and other hard-hit areas in southern Somalia. Source: WFP/Barry Came

UN News Centre: In the three years since you took on the assignment, what has been the biggest development, positive or negative, that you’ve seen?

Mark Bowden: There are a number of changes. One of them is certainly the issue of access. When I came to Somalia, I was able to travel to most of the main centres of Somalia, all over the country, and I can’t do that anymore. And that’s a great loss, in terms of actually being able to see and better identify ways of addressing need where it is. I regret that lack of access more than anything else. So that’s been the main change that’s taken place. I think that within the humanitarian community we’ve become a broader community. There are new donors, new actors, who bring a lot more to the table in terms of the capacity to respond. That’s also a challenge for us, in that we make sure that our coordination mechanisms are adequate to bring people in, that we minimize the process element of our work and focus more on the operational delivery that we all need to achieve in this very difficult time.

UN News Centre: How do you work around the lack of access to those most in need?

Food vouchers empower families by providing access to essential supplies, and encourage local traders to bring in food at affordable prices. Source: ASEP 2011

Mark Bowden: I think you sometimes need to find new agents to assist, by which I mean not just the traditional aid organizations, or even the new aid organizations, but you need the support of the commercial sector which can probably get to places that the rest of us can’t in difficult times. We have to develop new approaches to food security, which we have done, I think, very successfully in developing cash-for-work schemes, voucher schemes, things that allow a better degree of support to the population wherever they are. And we also have had to improve our ways of monitoring and there are a number of different ways in which we can do that, including better use of partnerships, NGOs that we work with, to identify where the areas of need are and to better report on the effectiveness of our operation.

UN News Centre: Where do you see the situation on the ground in Somalia in 100 days’ time?

Mark Bowden: What I’d like to see is that we have stabilized the food crisis and mitigated the worst effects of that. Three months from now, essentially we should be seeing the deyr harvest come in, with the first real improvement in the nutritional status and reduction of mortality figures. It won’t help us solve the problem, but we should be on to a better path. I’d like to see far more effective overall coverage in terms of health activities, with the capacity to reach most of the population in terms of immunization and other key elements of protection. I’d certainly like to see a reduction of conflict and an environment in which there can be a serious focus on the provision of assistance.

Mark Bowden speaks on the Horn of Africa Crisis

UN News Centre: You have had an extensive career in the humanitarian field. How would you compare this to other crises you have dealt with?

Mark Bowden: It’s very difficult to make those sorts of comparisons. I’ve worked in other famines and I think it’s important to recognize from one famine to another that there are differences, but one thing in common is that we shouldn’t rely on humanitarian assistance alone to make the difference. Humanitarian assistance is often the trigger that changes the markets and makes conditions different. The other thing I’ve learnt over the years is also providing people with some hope. The challenge in Somalia, as it has been in many other crises, is to keep hope alive – hope for farmers so they actually want to stay on the land and not leave, so the hope that they’ll get another harvest and that they can make a difference. When people give up hope, we have a far worse crisis on our hands, something that’s far more difficult to deal with, and those are some of the lessons you get from working in very different environments.

UN News Centre: What drives you to take on this challenging job?

Mark Bowden: Well, I have a basic fondness for Somalia. I first worked in Somalia in the 1980s and it’s a very interesting country. While being challenging, it has people who are very motivating, resourceful and unique in the way they tackle issues. It’s never dull doing this job. There’s always some hope, and not just hope, but some real possibilities of making change. I mean, I do this sort of work because of the hope and the feeling that you can make a real difference. And if I felt I couldn’t make a difference, I wouldn’t carry on doing this work.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator confers with Kiki Gbeho of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Dollow, Somalia. Photo credit: OCHA

UN News Centre: Do you like coming to work every day?

Mark Bowden: Yep. I never feel that there’s a day I don’t want to come in to the office or I dread it. I find the challenges interesting. I think we have the capacity to deal with them and we can do better than we are doing. There are areas that I find intensely frustrating, just in terms of wishing there was a more straightforward solution that we could get to address some of the real challenges that exist in meeting people’s health needs, providing protection and support they need. There are clearly frustrations in this job, but there are also tremendous rewards.

UN News Centre: What goes through your mind when you see the effects of the famine?

Mark Bowden: A mixture of emotions. It’s very difficult not to move away from seeing the mass of people and the bigger institutional problems to identify with the individual. It’s when you hear stories from people – that they’ve moved long distances, they’ve been walking for three weeks, they’ve split themselves off from their families. It’s impossible not to feel moved by it. And to feel that you have to respond to this in a way that makes a practical difference. Being an uptight English person, I mean we’re not prone to great bouts of emotions, but I hope that what I feel is the need to do better in terms of making sure less people have to move and less people die.

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