Facing the challenge of survival in Somalia

A nomadic family in Somalia.
A nomadic herder and his family move to find water in Somalia.

World Concern’s mission of reaching the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world means we work in some of the most challenging places on earth. A report I just received from our Somalia staff brought this reality to light afresh for me. It summarized the results of a survey of families in two areas where we’ve recently started working in Somaliland (northern Somalia). The figures indicate such dramatic need – it’s hard to fathom what these families face every day just to survive.

Here are a few of the most astonishing ones:

  • 92% of the families do not use latrines
  • 54% of people observed had noticeable eye infections
  • 59.6% have never attended any school
  • Only 13% have attended secondary school
  • 54.6% travel 1-2 hours a day to reach a water source with the largest percentage going three times a day
  • 83.3% are drinking water that is not safe for human consumption
  • A main source of income is livestock, yet only 10% of the animals in households are producing milk

It’s impossible to dig wells in some of these areas because the water, even below the surface, is salty. Rainwater and groundwater runoff collected in berkads (underground reservoirs) are the only source of clean water.  One of our projects is building more berkads in these areas.

Planting sack gardens in Somalia.
Teaching people to grow vegetables in sack gardens offers hope.

The soil is so dry and lifeless, nothing can grow here. People eat mostly bread, rice they buy from others. Even vegetable gardens wither. We’re teaching people to grow sack gardens, which hold moisture so things can grow.

Droughts are becoming more frequent and herds are shrinking. Their only hope for healthier herds may be to improve the land with rock lines that will direct rainwater into the soil. One goal is to improve livelihoods so families don’t have to be constantly moving in search of water.

In spite of the inhospitable environment, we know there are solutions: Collecting rainwater, growing food in sack gardens, sustaining herds.  Even in Somalia, we see hope.

Join us in bringing hope to this dry and weary land.

Freedom from worms for Somali children

Imagine if every child under the age of 5 could be cured from painful intestinal parasites, which infect 40% of the world’s children, causing sickness and malnutrition. That’s about to happen in Somalia, a country with one of the highest under-five mortality rates in the world.

UNICEF has agreed to partner with World Concern in Somalia to distribute 3.5 million doses of deworming medicine (Albendazole). This will be part of UNICEF’s vaccination campaign in Somalia, scheduled for April 2011. There will be enough doses to reach every Somali child under 5.

This comes at the same time we’re launching new clean water projects in northern Somalia, which will provide wells, latrines and life-saving health and hygiene information to thousands of drought-affected people. We’ll also be completing wells in the Juba Valley, which we started before insecurity in that area forced us to halt those projects. Clean water and deworming go hand in hand – access to fresh water, sanitation and understanding hygiene help prevent reinfection.

We’re excited to partner with UNICEF in this amazing endeavor to help children in Somalia enjoy healthier lives!

To learn more about the 44-Cent Cure to rid children of intestinal parasites, click here.

Obama’s Cairo Speech & Islam: Should the poor rejoice?

CAIRO, EGYPT - JUNE 4: U.S. President Barack Obama makes his key Middle East speech at Cairo University June 4, 2009 in Cairo, Egypt. In his speech, President Obama called for a "new beginning between the United States and Muslims", declaring that "this cycle of suspicion and discord must end". (Photo by Getty Images)

I’ve just returned from Asia and, because World Concern works many places in the Islamic world, I listened closely to Obama’s Cairo speech. This morning I was in the middle of writing an email responding to a very conservative critique of the speech when I took a call from our Area Director for Africa. Because of the now uncontested control of Al Shabab in the two major areas of our work, we have had to table any plans for expansion even though the need of the poor increases. We will expand in Somaliland where there is greater stability.

The media report on only a few of the attacks of Islamic fundamentalists, especially if they target Europeans or Americans or involve a suicide bombing. Even more than those who are killed, though, the poor pay the price for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. They may flee their homes in the midst of fighting, as we now see tens of thousands doing in Somalia and Pakistan. They may remain as helping agencies are driven out or required to curtail their work as we are having to do. And they may not even be able to cultivate or harvest a crop. Men and boys who would be working to feed the family are forcefully conscripted into militias. The suffering of the poor is many times greater than those who are violently killed or maimed.

So will Obama’s speech make anything better? The conservative commentary that I read was a resounding “no” for one of these reasons.

1) Saying something does not make it so. Failing to challenge intolerance of other faiths even among non-fundamentalist governments and communities does not protect minorities. Policy differences still remain. Nothing is really different on the ground after the speech than before.

2) Fundamentalists are not going to change their beliefs and practices as a result of the speech because their actions are rooted in an Islamic expression that would discount the words of infidels.

I’ll concede those two points but that does not mean that “words are cheap” or that nothing has changed.

The criticism does not recognize and words and symbols are powerful, not in bringing magical solutions to seemingly intractable problems but in changing the context in which they are seen and discussed. Sure, a speech will not solve all of the contradictions within the doctrine and practice of Islam anymore than a Papal edict would have stopped the IRA until the power of the community had turned against the violence in Ireland. Yes, there is a significant difference between the foundations of Islam and Christianity in how we regard political power and nature of kingdom. Islam is too savvy to embrace grace and such impractical concepts such as loving enemies. The Prophet Mohammed entered Mecca at the head of an army from Medina and triumphed over those who had ignored him earlier, establishing a religious/political reign that has been contested ever since his death. Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was killed by his opponents less than a week later, triumphing only through his death and resurrection and establishing a Kingdom of servants.  Islam and Christianity are different at their cores.

Even though words and symbols alone do not change circumstances on the ground nor reconcile true differences between faiths, peoples or nations, I believe in their power in changing the context in which debate and discussion happens. When I meet an obstructive government official who wants a bribe, I will not oppose him but try to include him in solving the problem that he has created. “Let’s see. It does look like we have a problem. How do we manage to solve it.”  That approach has worked more often than not and certainly better than the confrontational approach that drips with judgment. I do not expect the official never to extort money again as a result of this interchange but rather to solve an immediate problem. By (hopefully) changing the context of the discussion from “me against you” to “we’ll solve this together”, my words and attitude make a difference.

I also think that Obama is right in presuming that most Muslims worldwide do not want to live under a fundamentalist regime, not even in Somalia. Muslims are created in God’s image and worthy of respect. They desire to live in peace and without fear. Fundamentalists of any flavor eventually hang themselves on their own rope but US rhetoric and attitudes have given the Islamists a lot more rope to work with before it begins to tighten. Obama’s speech shortened the rope and Obama and his team are not naïve enough to think that all will now be well. But we have a better chance for progress.

Finally, isn’t there an Arabic tradition of fine words and hospitable actions on the part of both guests and hosts while action, if there is any, takes place behind the scenes? Obama respected that tradition, again showing that he values those within Arabic and more broadly Islamic cuItures. I think that we need to look more closely at the responses of the Muslim man and woman in the street to gauge the success of the speech in accomplishing what the US hoped that it would—not in solving the problems but in beginning to change the ethos in which the problems are discussed. The last president to be able to do that effectively was Carter and the peace that he facilitated between Egypt and Israel has been among the few hopeful elements that has endured in the Middle East.

Do I think, then, that we’ll be able to immediately revive our plans to expand our work in southern Somalia because of a speech in Cairo? No, of course not. But I do believe that it incrementally reduces the power of the fundamentalists who sacrifice help for the poor among their own people to acheiving and maintaining rule over them.

And I believe, because we are created in God’s image, we wish to be respected and valued. Approaching those with whom we disagree with respect will not in itself close the gap that divides us but does make bridge-building easier.

Fighting Poverty in a Violent Place: Somalia

Poverty in Somalia
Photo courtesy of the NY Times

Working on poverty reduction is hard anywhere in the world but is harder some places than others. World Concern is one of the few agencies that has worked in Somalia for over three decades. There is no effective central government in Somalia and the areas of our work are sometimes occupied by one of the rival groups and then another, sometimes from one day to the next. Violence in Somalia is always imminent. It is one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world to fight poverty. We were recently asked by a donor how we are able to work in places like Somalia where there is so much violence.  Here is how our staff in Africa answered.


Somalia has one of the worst human development indices and the south in particular bears the burden. Due to the protracted conflict and natural disasters there have been an estimated 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid and a further 1 million are internally displaced (Somalia CAP 2009).

World Concern has worked in Somalia for almost 30 years. Through that experience, we have developed an understanding of the Somali people, especially in the areas that you referred to in your email. The current program primarily targets the unarmed, marginalized Somalia Bantus, who have small farms, and people affected by leprosy. Because of frequent conflicts with neighboring pastoralists (herders) who come in search of water and pasture for their animals, World Concern expanded the program to address water issues for the pastoralists.

The program is being implemented in an area that is located away from the main trade routes, providing some protection from conflicting groups. The residents of the area are the marginalized Somali Bantus. One of the villages a major settlement of people affected by leprosy. The project is designed to benefit 45,000 people, 24,200 of whom are direct beneficiaries.

The Somali political landscape is very dynamic with frequent changes. World Concern has always worked with and through the community elders and their structures such Community Development Committees, and Sector committees for the various activities. These are manned by the beneficiary community who come from the target groups. We do not deal with the armed groups in any way.

World Concern works with the locally elected central committee of elders which has remained unchanged over the years in spite of the constant shift of power in the area. The Central Committee is in charge of selecting the Community Development Committee. World Concern has continually trained the Central Committee and the Community Development Committees to build their capacity for project implementation.

The present programming is aimed at saving lives and reducing conflict between communities through capacity building. World Concern through consultative meetings with the community leadership has shared responsibilities in the implementation activities.

What would happen if our programs were forced to end either by a decision of the US government or because of violence from the Somali groups in power in our areas?

    1. We would have to immediately cease our activities without any planning or preparation.
    2. It would negatively reflect on the image of World Concern in the community because we failed to honor the obligation of completing the program. This would also make reentry into the community difficult. It would enhance recruitment of militants.
    3. It would negatively impact the work and reputation of our the local partners we work with on the ground.
    4. Most of the resources we and the communities have invested would be wasted because we would be unable to continue the activities essential to securing benefits to the people in the area of our work.
    5. The very fragile local economy would shrink even further because of lack of employment and reduced commerce.
    6. The community would suffer even more.  The already marginalized households and leprosy affected people would suffer greater oppression and be deprived of access to services essential to their welfare. Without our work with both of the competeing communities, conflict between pastoralists and farmers would probably increase.  Because we would not complete our planned activities, many in the area of our work would either lose their livelihoods. It would affect 80% of the pastoralists, 90% of the farmers, and 100% of those who fish as a major part of their livelihood.


Doing good well is more than simply knowing how to pursue interventions with excellence. Working in places like Somalia requires a strong commitment to the Somali people, patience, great wisdom in complex personal and group relationships. It means that we develop relationships with local leaders who are concerned about their people. It means that we must find local partners who will risk violence and carry on even when there are infrequent visits and interrupeted communication.  It means that our staff must depend daily upon a merciful God and be willing to submit their ideas and action to His direction.  It is only God who nurtures the courage of our staff to work in the face of uncertainly and sudden violence.