Revisioning Somalia: An appeal for ‘this way of working’

BY Kanni Wignaraja | June 6, 2018|Comments 0

My recent visit to Somalia was a mere 48 hours, to take in a decades long story of conflict and climate-driven destruction of Mogadishu. Of Somalia. They say what you hear and see in those initial moments, in the blink of an eye, is what stays with you and gets deeply etched in memory, despair and in hope. So here goes.

Green saplings rising

The sharp banking of the plane I was coming in on, and a runway that went toe-to-toe with the Indian Ocean waves, should have been a give-away. The heavily fortified ‘green zone’ where the diplomatic missions, UN and some government and NGOs reside, made the working reality stark to me. The challenges faced cried out for all working in Somalia to do the impossible. To re-vision a country, together with many of its young people, growing back from the ashes as a green sapling tries to do.

The question is if the UN can accompany a very young country on this journey, and guide and nurture this next generation, however fragile the openings may be, as they inspire us with their dreams and plans for a new, phoenix-like Somalia. For the few young people I spoke to, the idea of their country is one filled with a youthful exuberance and energy that makes one want to leap out of one’s container (where most staff still sleep at night) and get out there to help. This is the story of the UN in Somalia. So can we move from the forever-an-emergency modus operandi, to take a moment to carve out and protect some spaces, in our plans and with our funding, to be there also for the re-visioned Somalia?

Amidst all that challenges a faster national level rebuild, two factors, in particular, seem to slow down the shift in gear that the UN in Somalia wishes to make. The UN team is trying to support a disproportionately large displaced population – well over 6 million – that live in highly vulnerable situations, confronted daily by the fragility of climate change, injustice and clashing clan identity, with little protection, and hence a very real need to be there for them every day. There are also the factors within the UN, where we are divided by the way we are governed and funded, with the large proportion of funds received targeted for shorter term needs, and not enough for helping to rebuild institutions that will govern judiciously, provide essential local services, invest in sustainable agriculture and ensure greater access and quality of education, health and dignity for all Somalis.

Camel yoghurt to coding: Showing (or paving) the way for longer-lasting transformations

There are pilot efforts supported by several UN entities, to innovate and to test out new ventures. And this provides the evidence that says this different path is also present, albeit a slim and less trodden one: to accompany the ingenuity and smarts of young people, who see a different future for themselves. During my short stay, I talked to young entrepreneurs who see bottled spicy ketchup and not the wasteful dumping of an abundance of tomatoes at days end; and another animated group who wish to produce and export camel’s milk yoghurt to a Somali diaspora; also feisty leaders calling for women’s rights, and most amazingly Bilan Codes – yes, ‘women can code’ – a local group run by Zahra, who the men in the room said they also learnt their computer skills from, and here she was teaching the next generation of Somali women to code! These can be more than small pilot projects, to light the way for longer-lasting transformations.

The UN leadership and Country Team in Somalia see the disconnect between this re-vision, and over a dozen years of our presence doing the same-same. They live and work through the presence of violence, and having lost colleagues to mortars and truck bombs, are rightly contained in their response. The UN team cannot and must not forego its humanitarian role and support, as many lives depend on it. However, the UN team is also trying to get behind a young Somalia willing to leap-frog the usual, by using IT and mobile apps, and moving, however tentatively, behind a new Constitution and a first-time one person-one vote election in 2021.

Rewarding positive disruption

To stay relevant to this story, we must bring what we know and what we do much more together in Somalia, and in so many more places, to disrupt the negative trends and to support positive change for: a safer urban growth, with more clean green energy, to invest in values-based governance and the protection of the rights and dignities of all people, to address positive technology solutions and cyber security, to mitigate climate shocks and adaption of consumption and production patterns, and to ensure meaningful education and jobs for young people. And more. To support countries such as Somalia progress on sustainable development, the UN will have to share capacities and resources, within and with others. And colleagues must be rewarded for innovating, being forward-leaning and taking on this way of working.

I will not pretend to understand all the complexity, but before I blink, I do know this – our tired rules that keep us silo’d, aversion to risk given programmes under daily stress from security concerns, and agency-first mentalities that limit what we can do together, do not belong here. We have a team on the ground, more-or-less ready to brave the new path. The current UN reforms that are underpinned by a call to invest in prevention and longer term sustainable development, that demand more efficient business operations, that expect shared bold analytics and higher levels of accountability to the people we serve, shout out to be demonstrated in this country context. Agency leaders, funders and rule-makers must let this UN country team show the way.

Photo: UNHCR / S.Ostermann / October 2014

Authors


Kanni Wignaraja Kanni is Director of the UN Development Operations Coordination Office. You can follow her on Twitter.

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