UN and NGO interventions

Belated international media coverage of the crisis played a key role in triggering an international response. But the first reports of an impending major disaster by the very few NGOs that remained in the country when Barre was overthrown during the development of the crisis did not receive sufficient attention. The decision by the USA and the UN to intervene in the famine was tragically late.

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The agencies faced a multitude of problems in delivering humanitarian aid. Because of extreme levels of insecurity, agencies were forced to rely on expensive armed protection by the militia to distribute emergency relief. For example, CARE, which was responsible for the delivery of food supplies, spent $100 000 per month on bodyguards to carry out its relief distribution activities.31 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had a much higher protection bill of $100 000 per week which it paid to factional militias to provide security for the distribution of emergency relief.32 Not only was this an expensive way of providing relief, but by paying large amounts of money to militias, as even the UN found itself doing involuntarily, the war economy was encouraged and disarmament discouraged.33

There was a general lack of preparedness and information about the disaster, which contributed to the delays in launching the intervention. Only a handful of agencies including the ICRC, Save the Children Fund and Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) stayed in the country when all the UN agencies and most NGOs withdrew from the country following Barre’s demise. The absence of most UN agencies during the critical period of the crisis meant that they lacked extensive and accurate information necessary to organize and carry out large-scale humanitarian operations.34 It was difficult to collect detailed information and most agencies failed to consult the few NGOs already in the country. As a result, local food markets and household entitlements were destabilized when emergency food flowed into the region.

Intervening in a country without a state structure was something new to the agencies which were used to dealing with central authorities. Moreover, the operational guidelines of agencies were more applicable to natural disasters than to complex emergencies that require creative and flexible programming under conditions of continuing conflict. Questions over impartiality, accountability and appropriate codes of conduct added to the confusion. This was a nearly unprecedented intervention (in terms of scale) even for those agencies such as the ICRC and UNICEF that had a long experience of working in conflict situations. Matters were made worse by a near-total loss of both written and human historic records of previous Somali experience. UN agency records were lost when the Mogadishu UN compound was overrun and virtually no staff with pre-1991 Somali experience were redeployed. Indeed the central UN civil operation under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) seemed to view prior territorial experience with disdain, in a territory in which it proposed and attempted to create a proxy civil governance network.

The multitude of agencies with contrasting mandates, structures, procedures, operations and capacities to operate in Somalia complicated the coordination of the intervention in an already complex disaster.35 Many NGOs were in the theatre primarily to curry favor with the media, in an effort to mobilize name recognition and funds. Doubtless, they were concerned with saving lives but also with bolstering their budgets via increased government and UN agencies transfers and public donations. The high-profile media coverage of the crisis also created other problems, which undoubtedly affected the quality and delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Operation Restore Hope, launched in 1992 under UN resolution 704, resulted in a contradictory multi-mandated intervention involving peacemaking, peacekeeping and peace-enforcement activities. With an annual expenditure of $1.5 billion, the intervention was the most expensive humanitarian operation ever undertaken.36 A Life and Peace Institute (1995) study points out that:

The Operation’s mandate was vague, changed frequently during the process, and was open to myriad interpretations. The mandate changed from protecting the delivery of humanitarian assistance to encouraging and maintaining a `secure environment’, to capturing a leader of one of the factions at one stage and, later, to encouraging negotiations with that same leader ¼ As a consequence UNOSOM was bedeviled with disagreements among the various players.37

Earlier in the intervention, as demobilization and control of weapons were deemed essential, the UN’s first Special Representative, Mohamed Sahnoun, initiated a food-for-arms program aimed at reducing the widespread availability and use of light weapons.38 This was an important initiative that had wide support among Somalis, including most faction leaders and elders.39 However, this approach to controlling arms was soon replaced by a new strategy (after Sahnoun resigned), which suggested disarming the militia by force as the only means of successfully curbing the widespread availability of weapons. The new strategy was abandoned when UN troops met fierce resistance from faction leaders. It was, fortunately, never attempted in Somaliland, where tentative UNOSOM plans to seize Berbera and Hargeisa by force were abandoned.

The concentration of the humanitarian aid in and around Mogadishu further limited the operation’s impact; drawing people from rural areas to urban centers where relief camps had been established. Despite the rhetoric of capacity-building, UN agencies and international NGOs generally implemented emergency relief activities with little or no involvement of local actors. They perceived the local NGOs not always correctly as clan-based contractors.40 No constructive attempts were made to engage local networks and mosque-related groups as channels, bases, or sources of legitimacy, despite their local and national legitimacy and proven capacity to mobilize domestic resources. Nor were clan elders recognized as constituting genuine, historically rooted community conduits; nor was it realized that by strengthening them, peace lords would have been supported.

There were, however, a number of positive outcomes. The ICRC’s humanitarian relief work, for example, at the height of the famine, provided wet and dry rations to over one million people throughout southern regions of the country. This is believed to have averted starvation of tens of thousands of people. ICRC’s operation included a clear mandate; extensive local experience; the existence of a national counterpart (the Somali Red Crescent); and political impartiality accepted by the local people.41 In contrast, UNOSOM’s operation was widely regarded as a party to the conflict, following its war with one of the factions, and the cause of the deaths of countless innocent civilians.

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