Somalia’s challenge: A conversation with FAO country chief Luca Alinovi

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization chief officer in Somalia Luca Alinovi. Photo by: brusselsbriefings

Although Luca Alinovi has a clear idea on who is responsible for the humanitarian emergency in the Horn of Africa, he doesn’t want to point fingers at anyone now.

The refugee and food crisis could worsen in the next few weeks, says the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s chief officer in Somalia, and pinning the blame on someone takes up time the famine victims do not have.

The next rainy season in the Horn of Africa is expected to commence in October. In a normal year, it accounts for 30 percent of the annual production of cereals and other commodities – but what is normal in a region reeling from two consecutive disappointing crop yields? Meanwhile, refugee camps continue to expand as concerns about security and disease outbreaks linger.

“This is not a short-term crisis,” Alinovi told Devex last week. “This is one of acute peaks. Even if we respond extremely well in this period, very probably there will be some waves in the next months. But if we do not respond well, the waves will be so high that they will be a tsunami.”

Earlier this year, FAO launched its 5-year strategy for Somalia as well as a 2-year action plan, both based on the U.N.-wide Somalia assistance strategy. More recently, the agency appealed for $70 million in emergency relief, mainly to fund cash-for-work schemes, animal welfare and the provision of fertilizers and seeds to farmers.

But a fundamental rethinking of development cooperation may be in order, Alinovi indicated, citing economist Paul Collier’s suggestion that the international community step in where a government is unable to provide basic services, youth employment and food security.

We spoke with Alinovi about dealing with al-Shabab militants, funding dilemmas and the challenge of achieving sustainable development.

How are you linking the emergency response with long-term development strategies? What are the long-term programs you are implementing?

The traditional sequence – humanitarian relief, recovery, rehabilitation and development – does not make sense in situations such as in Somalia. There is now a strong shift toward humanitarian relief, but it is necessary to continue with development programs.

What happened in the past – and we hope it will not happen in future – is that development and medium-term activities in Somalia have been underestimated and underfunded because it was said: “That is a country in crisis.” But Somalia is an extremely strong country in terms of market [functioning] and self-development. Last year, it sold more than four million heads of livestock to global markets, mainly to the Arab countries.

Access to water is crucial in the region – also for animals traveling along pastoral routes. Why has this been a challenge?

The fundamental problem there has been in the past – and we would like to avoid it in the future – is that the money invested in this segment has been small. It hasn’t been possible to do an intervention with a national impact. Often there has been an impact only on some areas and parts of the population. The issue is that in the absence of a government, the scale of the intervention is very big and often there haven’t been enough resources for that.

Are there low-cost solutions, especially in the crucial sector of irrigation?

In developing family gardens, we employ low-cost technologies – such as drop-by-drop irrigation systems – that are advanced enough to enable limited use of water.

We promote a series of interventions on “conservation agriculture,” where there is minimal use of machinery and wastage of water. [The activities] can be carried out by weaker people or by those who have difficulty accessing agriculture. We are also trying to develop urban agriculture to ensure access to food in urban areas. We always try to have control over all the basins so that the animals can use them in a sustainable way.

All the knowledge we have at the moment on agriculture allows us to advance, for example, on innovative systems of food storage – developed locally, but that can protect [food better] in comparison with what the farmers do right now. At the moment, the farmers lay a lot of their food reserves underground, where they can be eaten by mice, spoil or be contaminated.

How do you engage the private sector?

We work very much with the private sector, especially for livestock, but we are increasing action and dialogue with the food industry too.

The private sector in Somalia is very vibrant, active and lively, even in conflict-ridden areas. As in any country in the world, the private sector can play, and it plays, an important role in development, but it can also play a limiting role. In some sectors, it can be a monopolist, generating problems with development.

During the last long-rain season, some areas saw production increase 800 percent, but prices didn’t fall so much. So, farmers and merchants got richer even as more people gained accessed to food.

How relevant is the youth for a long-term solution? Are you implementing programs specifically focused on its needs?

In Somalia, more than 50 percent of the population is young. If the youth takes part in conflict without ever seeing a state of peace, it is very complex to turn back. The damage is done. It is very hard to recreate social conditions that allow living in a state of peace and in a situation that for us is normal when in the past 20 years many generations grew up experiencing only war. The youth is the driving force of any society in the world: Investing in them is vital.

What is your relationship with al-Shabab, the militants who control central-southern Somalia and have banned some foreign agencies from entering?

We do not have a direct relationship with al-Shabab. As chief of the U.N. FAO in Somalia, as the one directly responsible, I have never had any direct contact with al-Shabab. What happens is this: In view of the importance of our intervention, we always pass through the communities and the traditional Somali institutions. They allow us to stay there and they protect us; probably they negotiate with al-Shabab the space we need to operate.

Much aid is channeled through local groups. Does that increase the danger of fraud, waste and abuse?

I would be very curious to see a country where this problem does not exist. A zero-risk operation in Somalia is absolutely unimaginable, unless you transfer no money there. We have, with some particular donors, zero-risk programs … carried out in Nairobi [Kenya] that involve analysis or activities aimed at delivering information about Somalia. But everything done in Somalia has a risk component.

What can we do? We can simply carry out a series of controls to reduce the risk. This is what we do and we do it very seriously, jointly with other U.N. agencies and with all the possible control tools there are available in the country. We collaborate with the U.N. Monitoring Group and with all [actors] that can help us triangulate the information to guarantee we do the maximum possible to minimize risk. “Minimize risk,” however, doesn’t mean “reduce to zero.”

Are innovative funding mechanisms needed to address Somalia’s long-term challenges?

It is absolutely necessary to find innovative mechanisms to give an answer to humanitarian needs. Defining development paths from the beginning of the crisis is crucial as well, so that the risk the crisis will recur can be reduced. In reality, the aid is still split into development and humanitarian relief, recovery and rehabilitation.

Is Somalia still a priority for the international community?

If this crisis had any value, it would be having put the Somali people back at the center of international public opinion.

My concern is, the interest of the public as well as of governments tends to be very volatile, shifting easily from one side to another. There is never enough time to achieve those changes and the expectations are too high. It’s a real worry. Maybe in one month there will be a new crisis of general interest that will make everybody forget about Somalia.

Are you raising funds from private citizens?

We are trying to develop a series of very small packages that can be funded directly, such as enabling a farmer from the United States or Russia to directly help a Somali farmer. Everything donated by a private individual goes directly to a Somali citizen or to a Somali farmer, possibly with his address. We would like to work just as a channel from person to person. This maybe helps deliver a little bit better a picture of what we are trying to do here and that is often not perceived from afar.

There’s grave concern about aid worker security in Somalia. How do you keep your field staff safe?

All of us, even those who go there temporarily, receive proper security training. There’s the U.N. security organization that is very active and run by very skillful and focused people. We monitor constantly the security and all the agencies have staff specifically in charge with [that issue].

Beyond this, I believe the security is assured by what we give and how the people perceive what they receive. If we are able to meet the needs of the people, our first defenders are our beneficiaries. If we do not [satisfy] our beneficiaries, it’s hard to ask for security. When we [satisfy] them, they are the lions, the mastiffs that protect us. That applies very well to the FAO.

Read more about the Horn of Africa drought response.

About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.