Humanitarian actors' struggle for access, impartiality, and engagement with armed non-state actors in Somalia

PHAP member articles are written by members of the association in their personal capacity. The views expressed belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of PHAP or any other organizations with which the author is associated.
5 January 2014

While being denied or granted only limited access in most of Somalia remains a reality, the UN integrated missions’ approach risks compromising the principle of impartiality of humanitarian action. Within this framework, humanitarian organizations are also confronted with dilemmas of engagement with armed non-state actors.1



Almost 20 years after the 1991 events, Somalia adopted a new provisional constitution. The first regular parliament was established in August 2012 as a result of a consultative process that involved Clan Elders and a Committee composed of Clan representatives supported by international assistance. The process, despite being contaminated by corruption allegations is considered by most observers as a landmark attempt to exclude warlords and a step toward a more peaceful future.


A variety of actors

The federal government is not the only player in today’s Somalia. Clans, insurgents, autonomous movements, self-declared independents2, inter-national militaries, diplomats and international aid organizations are key actors in contemporary Somalia. The main clans of the South Central regions (Hawiye, Darood, Dir, and Rahanweyn), Somaliland’s Isaaq, and the sub-clans, have always played a crucial role in defining community life, exercising power sharing and in many cases, replacing an inexistent or ineffective government experiencing two decades of turmoil. Clans and sub-clans provided services, authority, and security and were seen by a large part of the population as a fundamental ingredient to the livelihood of the country. Yet, the early stages of the hardliner opposition armed group Al-Shabaab, which for years has controlled almost 90% of Southern and Central Somalia, constituted an exception, having been organized with an unusual non-clanic structure and chain of command.

Somalia’s armed opposition and insurgency is made up of a plethora of actors. The country suffers from growing criminal groups and activities, but Al-Shabaab is still considered the most organized, effective, and by far the deadliest of these. Despite the "tactical withdrawal" announced in August 2011,3 the group has demonstrated on several occasions its capacity to carry out devastating actions with complex attacks in the capital Mogadishu and in neighboring countries. The prominent international military presence, represented by the 17,000 uniformed personnel of the UN-mandated African Union Mission (AMISOM) has so far significantly contributed to enhancing the Federal Government’s territorial control, but a sizeable part of the country remains exposed to extreme risk due to a very volatile security environment where military gains are often not followed by stable control or political legitimacy. On the international side, governmental actors have changed over the years to include players such as Turkey and China, while internally the map of Somalia shows an intricate net of federal actors and separatist movements, active also in the South Central zones.4

Despite its instability, Somalia’s momentum has attracted the private sector. Many members of the Somali diaspora decided to invest in the country, benefitting from trading opportunities and the construction boom. The diaspora has always played a crucial role, with remittance exceeding the amounts normally needed to fund the humanitarian response in the country.5 Remittances to Somalia are in fact seen by many as a reliable indicator of the interest, business propensity, and engagement of the diaspora within its country of origin. Somalia has a longstanding international aid community presence.6 Many actors were present even before 1991 and continued their activities over the last two decades of chaos. The national civil society organizations7 also played a fundamental role, in some cases with fatal consequences for many of their workers and leaders.8


The numbers of a crisis

In this context, the conditions of the local civilian population remain precarious. The humanitarian situation is extremely dire, with some of the worst indicators in the world, especially as far as the health sector is concerned. 870 000 persons are in need of humanitarian emergency aid and 2.3 million are in severe distress. A worrying indicator is the acute malnutrition rate, which afflicts over 200 000 children under the age of five.9 Current conditions, with a physician available for every 25 000 persons, cause 70 000 children’s deaths every year and reproductive health lies in a desperate state, with more than 30% of women of reproductive age dying due to pregnancy-related causes. In other words, a pregnant woman dies every two hours.10 In such a scenario, 2.1 millions are displaced: 1.1 million within the country’s boundaries and the remaining as refugees, mainly in the Horn of Africa and in Yemen. Yet, for the first time in years, considerable numbers of refugees have voluntarily crossed the borders, returning to Somalia from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia - but it is too early to determine a trend given the volatile security conditions.11


The struggle for access

The aid community works under extreme pressure to deliver humanitarian relief in a territory that remains one of the world’s most extreme environments. The so-called Southern and Central Zone, roughly from Galkayo to the Kenyan border, remains highly unstable. If born and raised in the rural areas of Somalia, young people under the age of 20 have practically never experienced the tangible presence of the government nor of rule of law. For all of their life, they have been the object of competing interests of various armed groups, and, as a result, many of them play an active role as perpetrators or serve as witnesses to massive human rights abuses and incredible atrocities. This is still occurring in today’s Somali society, coupled with a marked mistrust of the capacity and transparency of the government, which undermines the government’s capacity to expand control and obtain tangible support from communities. To deepen the problem, government troops and agents reportedly harass communities, which adds friction and slows any attempt by the government to gain acceptance and legitimacy.

After 1991, access became more complicated in Somalia. The international community was forced to leave the country on various occasions, as a consequence of serious security threats and incidents. The most affected areas, mainly concentrated in the South and Central Zone, have experienced instability that resulted in expansions and sudden contractions of the capacity of humanitarian actors to deliver aid, as well as alternative donors’ interest in funding the action. As an example, a comparison of the humanitarian access maps of June 2009 and January 2012 shows a dramatic increase of areas considered extremely restricted or inaccessible.12 This has forced actors, particularly NGOs, to develop new tools to ensure minimal implementation of life-saving programs, relying in most cases on the presence and work of national staff, who, in some cases, are the object of political pressure and interference. The proliferation of “remote management protocols”13 and increased collaboration with local actors has become the norm for many organizations. On the one hand, this limits the capacity of organizations to independently monitor humanitarian needs and response. But on the other hand, this stimulates an increased ownership and development of capacity by local actors, with national personnel and local organizations growing in competence and thus in weight in the humanitarian fora.

2012 marked a slow change. Following AMISOM’s military successes and possibly some internal fragmentations, Al-Shabaab reduced its presence, concentrating on rural areas and limiting its control in towns and cities. After more than three years of little to no access, the relief effort today enjoys limited access that allows essential movement of aid workers in several southern and central regions, particularly in the cities and surrounding areas. The international community resumed and intensified missions and visits to the country programs. This enables a slow but progressive improvement of the delivery of aid, almost exclusively limited to life-saving actions, aimed to provide urgent and essential aid such as basic health care, including nutritional programs for heavily malnourished children, water and sanitation to reduce the impact of waterborne diseases, and food security. The aid community is cautiously trying to expand its capacity to deliver, considering the fragility of the access gained thus far.14 Today, it is estimated that almost 2 million persons are in need of safe water in Somalia and pertinent programs have reached only 31% of them. Similarly, only 25% of the persons in need of food assistance this season have been reached by the assistance thus far. Other activities related to education and protection show different results, with, respectively, 19% and 0.8% of beneficiaries reached out of the total population in need. This shows how the assistance in Somalia is still unbalanced and incomplete, a trend confirmed also by the current humanitarian funding, with only 41% of the needed sum actually funded by donors.15

Access remains perilous. In fact, as the Al-Shabaab transitioned from conventional fighting to asymmetric warfare and using guerrilla and terrorist attacks against its targets, particularly the Federal Government, the humanitarian personnel and more importantly the civilian population, are exposed to lethal consequences in the rural areas as well as in the main urban areas, including Mogadishu. Analysts find many similarities between the group’s current military tactics and the ones rolled out by armed opposition groups in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. This brings enormous challenges to the humanitarian community that seeks access to people in need of assistance. Denied or limited access in most of the country remains a reality, with a number of humanitarian actors, both international NGOs and United Nations agencies frequently expelled from the opposition-controlled territory,16 with allegations of hidden agendas, proselytism, and of causing harm to the local population.17

The few international organizations allowed to remain in the country were exposed to continuous harassment, including kidnapping and killings and faced movement and activity restrictions dramatically reducing their capacity to deliver urgent and vital aid to communities.18 Organizations were in some cases not authorized to carry out essential activities such as vaccination campaigns and children nutrition programs. Movement outside of cities was often denied (with severe consequences) and caused reductions in access to affected populations.


The principles & the blurring of lines

In the current context, with slow improvements and windows of opportunity for the delivery of aid, two main issues arise and are the object of an international debate: 1) the risk of compromising the principled aid as a consequence of the United Nations integrated missions, and 2) the framework of engagement with opposition armed groups listed as terrorist organizations.

1. UN Integrated Missions

The humanitarian aid bases its action on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. The adherence to these principles is considered fundamental for humanitarian action and is seen by many as essential to negotiate access to the affected population and to contribute to the safety of the humanitarian personnel and beneficiaries.19 The concerns related to the unanimously approved UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2102, on the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM), setting up an integrated mission, operational from early June 2013, are linked to the blurring of the lines between the UN Political and Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia. This occurs by concentrating the responsibility on the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG). The fears are based on the risk of compromising the principle of impartiality. In fact, due to its direct ties and support to the Federal Government and AMISOM, the opposition groups, particularly Al-Shabaab, see UNSOM as a political partisan. Subsequently, humanitarian actors lose the ground to negotiate access as neutral and impartial players.

This generates an immediate misperception of all humanitarian aid controlled by the SRSG, by considering any agency or organization as a political tool in spite of their efforts to ensure compliance to the principles, leaving politically motivated programs, such as state building, to dedicated bodies of the UN system. If UN humanitarian aid work is considered subordinate to the UN political authority, the predictable result is restricted access and aid blockage. In conclusion, the perception of humanitarian operations as a tool to achieve political ends and not strictly aimed at saving lives and reducing suffering, is likely to seriously affect NGOs on the basis of the source of their funding, undermining their capacity and ending in a shrinking humanitarian operating space.20

2. Engagement with opposition armed groups listed as terrorist organizations.

The prolonged control of large parts of the territory by opposition groups, the impossibility for a significant number of agencies and NGOs to operate, combined with massive humanitarian needs, results in multiple pressures on the remaining humanitarian actors to implement expanding aid programs and equally heavy pressure and ingèrence on the armed opposition groups. These groups often deny access to rural areas under their control, and attempt to divert aid toward unverified needs or add requests for registration fees and taxation for the humanitarian organizations.

As a matter of fact, the presence of Al-Shabaab in the main cities, even if today more confined to the rural areas, is often referred by the Somali as "local authority," even though codes of conduct, counter-terrorism measures, and laws limit engagement with such groups, particularly by regulating the concept of material support.21 This dichotomy is evident in the constant negotiations with these groups by humanitarian actors in order to ensure access and protect funding from key donors who are concerned that public money may end up fuelling terrorist activities. This has serious implications at an operational level, as well as legal consequences, leading to a self-censoring tendency by many NGOs' boards and, in some cases, time-consuming procedures for procurement and activities that may fall under the concept of material support to designated groups or individuals.22

In the Bay region for instance, the rural areas are still controlled by Al-Shabaab, while the regional capital Baidoa is under Federal Government control. Humanitarian organizations are not always authorized to directly deliver aid in remote areas, while community elders are allowed to collect it from Baidoa, according to a distribution mechanism that selects and prioritizes the beneficiaries on the basis of vulnerability criteria, such as age, gender, conditions of the family, and number of disable persons in the household. In many cases, the organization is permitted to carry out post-distribution monitoring activities to ensure that aid is not diverted. Clearly, this imperfect methodology raises questions about the protection of the beneficiaries and, at best, confines humanitarian aid to the limited and insufficient delivery of core relief items. Aware that this constitutes an option of last resort, and while carefully ensuring that the aid reaches the intended persons, the organizations are today dedicating energy and resources to ensure that engagement with the present actors (Al-Shabaab) and the activities carried out do not fall under the aforementioned material support.

In short, humanitarian organizations are not only concerned and busy regulating aid, but also focusing on the legal consequences of their forced engagement with actors designated as terrorists. Failing to engage would result in a dramatic deterioration of the humanitarian conditions of thousands of people. Engaging recklessly would end up diverting aid from taxpayers and private resources.23

While the situation and access may appear slightly better in regions under the Federal Government’s control, with less implications related to the counter-terrorism prescriptions, the situation is far from simple. The lack of discipline, the tendency to concentrate governmental efforts in gaining control of the territory, and a poor knowledge of people’s real needs, common to many newly-established institutions, provokes a dangerous mix of frustration among communities that worry about the future and see their needs unaddressed.

In such circumstances, the role of national staff is crucial to international NGOs. Normally, national staff are profoundly exposed to local dynamics, have greater leverage with nationals, better knowledge of their interests and their roles in society, and a sounder understanding of, and compliance with, the principle of neutrality. This is essential for an NGO, international or local, hoping to maintain an effective presence.

Operational restrictions and legal limitations are the basis of a growing concern for humanitarian effectiveness in complex crisis. The combination of the aforementioned factors jeopardize the delivery of principled aid in Somalia, as a consequence of blurred lines between political agenda and humanitarian imperative.



In a country at war, where the death rate for pregnancy-related issues exceeds the death rate due to the conflict, access to populations in need of urgent life-saving services constitutes a priority for humanitarian organizations. There is an obvious need to reconcile independent coordination of humanitarian aid and counter-terrorism measures, as well as a need to resolve the growing requests of legal exemptions for selected humanitarian action, recognizing the operational circumstances where the action is carried out, and the presence and often undeniable territorial control of organizations designated as terrorists.

Currently, the situation is slowly improving, with expanded access and appeals to fund humanitarian activities to consolidate the results thus far achieved. This comprises a distinctive aspect of the complex and prolonged crisis and institutional void, where humanitarian action and state-building efforts are urgent and simultaneous. The identity and the mandate of the actors becomes of utmost importance as it appears extremely easy for frontline actors, such as NGOs, to be the unintended victims of the above-mentioned blurring of lines. Particularly for multi-mandated organizations, humanitarian action is often not perfectly compatible with a set of other priorities on the agenda of other actors involved, namely government, opposition groups, traditional authorities, federal administrations, international institutions, and donors.

State-building priorities, long-term development, and foreign policy may easily conflict with the strict adherence to humanitarian principles, which more than ever constitutes the only asset that leads to acceptance by, and access to, the people in need of life-saving aid.

While in the case of Somalia, it is nearly impossible to determine priorities between humanitarian and state-building needs, a clearer policy for their distinction should be encouraged. To start, it is extremely important for each actor, including NGOs, to define clearly and publicly their role in Somalia, and to clearly assert OCHA’s leadership on humanitarian issues, in order to mitigate the negative effects of perceived hidden agendas.

In multiple ways, Somalia is challenging the international community. In the last 20 years, the country has pushed humanitarian action and state-building activities to their limits and probably beyond. The aid community, representing one of the few international actors present in the country, has often acted as a replacement for the broader international community. While this has contributed to assisting the populations in need, this role has also generated a perception of non-neutrality and partiality. Growing global concerns of terrorism, donor fatigue in funding the response to a prolonged crisis, and a changing global environment are new challenges that Somalia and the international community are now facing.

Today, the priority is to deal with the complexity of the situation, and to adapt and rethink many of the operational approaches so as to comply with the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. This should be pursued without abandoning the plan for the reconstruction of a state able to control its territory to provide safety and dignity by serving its population. The current mapping of stakeholders shows an interconnection of actors diverse in nature, status, power, ideology, objectives, approaches, and means. To ensure that the Somali will not surrender to a violent imposition of power and control, a careful restructuring around the diversity of actors according to their contribution may bring reorganization to Somalia as a whole. All parties active in the delivery of a neutral, transparent, and accountable humanitarian relief should have their roles, as well as the legal space necessary, recognized to allow them to carry out their operations. This is the only realistic answer to the life-threatening situations millions of Somali face.


About the author

Marco Rotelli is the Secretary General of the Italian NGO INTERSOS, having previously worked as Country Representative in several countries and having coordinated the emergency responses in numerous crisis. During the past 10 years, he has worked in the humanitarian sector, in contexts of crisis and conflict including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, Mauritania, Indonesia, Haiti, the DR Congo, and Mali. He has been actively interested in the dynamics of civilian-military relations and in those of the integration between humanitarian emergency programmes, post-emergency management, and development.



1 An earlier version of this article was published in The ITCPM International Commentary (December 2013), Vol. IX, No. 34, pp. 69-73.
2 The issue of local autonomy in Somalia goes well beyond the notorious self-declaration of independence of Somaliland. Although not as outspoken, local statehood aspirations are still present in various regions, including Galmudug (Galgadug and Mudug regions), Maakhir State, Hiraan State, and Banaadirland.

3 The group’s spokeperson Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage announced a tactical retreat from Mogadishu in early August 2011, as a result of intense fighting with the African Union Peacekeeping force AMISOM (The Guardian, 8 August 2011, “Al-Shabaab has withdrawn from Mogadishu – but what happens now?”)

4 In August 2013, a reconciliation agreement was signed between the administration of Jubaland and the Federal Government.

5 Senior lecturer Laura Hammond at SOAS University, London, estimates that the amount of remittances of the Somali diaspora totals annually 1.3 to 2 billion USD (SOAS, University of London, 28 June 2013, “SOAS scholar helps launch campaign to protect remittance accounts in Somalia”)

6 For a list of the main humanitarian actors present in Somalia, consult the Consolidated Appeal Process.

7 Among the most active organizations:
IIDA Women’s Development Organization, Somali Women Development Center (SWDC), Save Somali Women and Children (SSWC), Women and Child Care Organization (WOCCA), and Organization for Somali Protection and Development (OSPAD).
8 Examples involving media and NGOs are the assassinations of Ali Shamarke, founder of Horn Afrik Media, assassinated by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) arranged by militants in August 2007 in Mogadishu as he returned from the burial of Mahad Ahmed Elmi, a fellow journalist and producer of Horn Afrik Radio shot earlier that day. WOCCA Executive Director and founding member of the Peace and Human Rights Network
(PHRN), Mohammed Abdulle Mahdi, was assassinated in Mogadishu in June 2008.
9 Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU ) – Somalia, “Food Security and Nutrition Outlook.”

10 World Health Organization, 2013, World Health Statistics 2013; World Health Organization (2012), Trends in maternal mortality 1990-2010: WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank estimates

11 According to UNHCR Movement Tracking, 30 000 refugees have returned only temporarily or seasonally. On 10 November, a “Tripartite Agreement” between the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the UNHCR was signed. This agreement sets the parameters for support and assistance to Somali refugees in Kenya who wish to voluntarily return to their homeland.

12 You can compare the access map for 2009 and the access map for 2012 online.

13 As in other countries, the organizations have developed tools to ensure the effective management of programs, while part of the staff is located outside the area of operation, normally for security reasons. Among the tools counted are detailed planning, implementing and monitoring procedures to be adopted also by the part of the team still able to remain in the field.

14 OCHA estimates that 2.1 million persons are in need of food assistance, while 400,000 per month are reached.

15 For an updated status of humanitarian figures in Somalia see OCHA's Humanitarian Dashboard for Somalia

16 Between 2010 and 2012, Al-Shabaab and other armed opposition groups controlled areas covering 90% of the South Central Zone of Somalia. Access maps are available at the NGO Safety Program's
Maps of reference page.
17 With a document published by the Al-Shabaab Office for Supervising the Affairs of Foreign Agencies (OSAFA), 16 NGOs and UN agencies were expelled from Somalia in 2011. Al-Shabaab accused aid groups of disseminating information on the activities of Muslims and militant fighters; financing, aiding, and abetting “subversive” groups seeking to destroy the Islamic penal system; and “persistently galvanizing the local population” against the full
establishment of Sharia law. Among the agencies were UNICEF, the World Health Organization, UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, the German Agency For Technical Cooperation (GTZ), Action Contre la Faim, Solidarity, Saacid, and Concern.
18 Between 2006 and 2011, there were over 150 security incidents against aid workers in Somalia.

19 The fundamental legal framework of the humanitarian principles is composed by General Assembly resolutions 46/182, 1991 and 58/114 2004.

20 A large part of the UN’s work in Somalia is carried out through NGOs, either local or international.

21 Several NGOs committed in the NGO Position Paper on Operating Principles and Red Lines (you can read more about the paper here), re-defining the core principles that should guide humanitarian action. The Counter Terrorism Designations and Specially Designated Nationals List can be found at the US Department ofthe Treasury, Office For Asset Control web site.

22 The US material support statutes 18 U.S.C. § 2339A defines the provision of material support to terrorists as: any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safe houses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel and transportation, except medicine or religious materials

23 In the majority of cases, NGO activities are funded by a mix of privately raised funds and institutional funds provided by Governments, UN, regional institutions, etc.


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