Somali drought response insufficient and disjointed, new report argues

This makeshift tank is the only water source for IDPs at the Dhuyuleh camp in Somalia. Photo by: Amunga Eshuchi / Trocaire / CC BY

NAIROBI — The humanitarian community was unprepared for the scale of Somalia’s ongoing drought and displacement crisis, and relief efforts so far have been both inadequate and disjointed, according to a report released Tuesday by Refugees International, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

The usual March through June rainy season in Somalia was disappointing, resulting in below normal harvest and pasture for the third season in a row. Levels of food insecurity are expected to mount between now and the end of the year, leaving many residents to turn to the humanitarian sector, which has been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis.  

“The scale of displacement has been enormous — something for which the humanitarian community appears not to have been prepared,” the report argues.

The 'Gatekeepers' to providing aid in Somalia

A class of middlemen and self-appointed internally displaced camp managers wield enormous control over how aid is distributed in Somalia. Humanitarians have developed several strategies to ensure access and transparency, but the problem looks only set to grow in the short term.

Humanitarians had hoped that many of the more than 800,000 Somalis who had been displaced by the current drought would head home following the start of the “Gu” rains in March, marking a turnaround for farm and grazing lands. But with little rainfall, many of the displaced stayed put. Baidoa, in southwestern Somalia, has received the largest number of internally displaced persons, swelling the population to almost double its previous size. The new urban residents are scattered in over 250 informal sites, according to RI.

This most recent crisis dates to November 2016, when drought was declared nationwide by federal and regional authorities. Overall, there are about 2 million people now internally displaced within Somalia, including those who fled before the current drought, according to the International Organization for Migration.  

In February, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia emphasized the need for a scale-up in emergency relief assistance to prevent famine in the country. Humanitarian agencies and donors mobilized quickly, using lessons from the devastating 2011-2012 famine, said Mark Yarnell, co-author of the report. But the sector failed to make adequate contingency plans for massive displacements, with measures such as prepositioning resources and boosting staffing levels.

“It was very much a reactive response, which is the reality in a lot of cases,” Yarnell told Devex.

The humanitarian sector is still struggling to meet the growing needs of IDPs across the country, which has led to gaps in coverage, the report found. A lack of coordination through the cluster system, insufficient data on the crisis, and “lackluster” efforts to protect IDPs have all contributed to the inadequate response, it found. The report pushed for the humanitarian sector to collect better data in order to outline the magnitude and needs of the crisis, provide greater leadership on IDP protection, and create a long-term strategy that considers that some of the displaced may never return home.

Funding and coordination

The overarching challenge is funding. The U.N. says its appeal has received over $900 million, with another $350 million pledged by donors. The U.S. is the largest donor. As the crisis continues, the report argues that additional funds are needed for food aid, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, protection and camp management. A revised Humanitarian Response Plan for Somalia released by the U.N. in May, sought a total of $1.5 billion for humanitarian response in 2017. The revised request called for these funds to support an "integrated response across all clusters, intensified scale-up and response in rural and hard-to-reach areas, as well as strengthened response to gender-based violence."

But before resources can be effectively positioned for the response, humanitarians need to better understand the needs on the ground. Different organizations are using their own, different data tools, which do not interlink and hence fail to provide a comprehensive picture, the report says. UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the REACH Initiative each have their own displacement tracking tools.

UNHCR told Devex that it decided in recent weeks, in coordination with IOM and ACTED/REACH, to carry out a detailed site assessment to map out needs.

“We’ll have to wait to see the results of the mapping, but this is definitely a very good step in the right direction,” said Yarnell.

The absence of collaboration has extended beyond information gathering, according to the report. RI found that there was limited understanding and coordination in the humanitarian community about which organizations were operating at the various IDP sites. The report quoted an aid staffer who alluded to “territorialism and flag-planting” distracting from gains in addressing needs of the IDPs.

The report also criticized the slow progress of the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster, which was activated in May to improve conditions in the camps. The cluster, according to the report, needs to conduct comprehensive IDP site mapping and analyze site security, among other tasks.

Protection and long-term planning

RI noted protection issues as a major deficiency in the response so far, calling cluster lead UNHCR’s response “lackluster.” RI interviews with agency staff said that rapes are happening on a regular basis with impunity.

Funding has largely been prioritized to immediate, life-saving needs, such as food security, nutrition, health and WASH, leaving the protection cluster underfunded in its response for protection of IDPs, Caroline van Buren, UNHCR representative in Somalia, told Devex by email. But the agency is engaging with local authorities to enhance security provisions in IDP sites, working to prevent forced evictions and involuntary return, among other efforts.

RI called for the creation of a senior protection officer position in the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator’s office that would work to ensure that protection efforts are prioritized. UNHCR supports this, but also believes that a system-wide commitment is needed from all the different agencies involved to identify key protection priorities, said van Buren.

“The scale of the emergency outweighs the response capacity of a single agency alone,” she told Devex. While the agency is working to mitigate gender-based violence through efforts such as improving site planning and adequate lighting at sites, service provision is limited because of insufficient funds, she said.

In addition to new IDPs, UNHCR is also continuing to facilitate voluntary refugee returnees from Kenya’s Dadaab camp. Many end up in IDP camps that are worse than the camp they left behind, the report alleges. The agency had a focus on returning refugees, which made it slow to pivot resources and attention to the displacement crisis when it was needed, said Yarnell. Assisted returns to the Baidoa area have been stopped because the current conditions.

The repatriation is part of an agreement with the agency, the Kenyan government and the government of Somalia. UNHCR acknowledges in its 2017 Somalia situation report that the circumstances are complex and dynamic. The agency provides a reintegration grant to returnees it assists to settle and monitors their situation. It is also working with federal authorities and donors in Somalia to establish a framework for successful reintegration.

RI said it is encouraged by recent staffing additions to the protection cluster, including the deployment of an information management officer, who will support data gathering and analysis.

With no end in sight for the crisis, the report emphasized the need for long-term planning, including a unified strategy among the U.N. Humanitarian Country Team and the federal, state and local governments to anticipate the internally displaced not returning home. This could include a policy shift from simply providing live-saving, temporary services to a local integration strategy that works with urban planners and development agencies to facilitate programing such as job support, said Yarnell.

"For many of them, they have lost their access to their livelihoods, if all of their livestock died, or they've lost access to their land. They've given up on their previous way of life and they are not going to go back," he said. "So it becomes about investing in urban planning and incorporating IDPs into that planning."

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About the author

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.