Somalia, a sickle-shaped country on the Horn of Africa, had been one of the economically productive nations in the African continent before the country was plunged into a devastating civil war in 1991.

The people of Somalia depended much on agricultural, fishing and livestock productions and led stable lives without requiring much economic support from the outside world.

At times, wealthy nations of the world donated humanitarian assistance mainly of food to the governments of Somalia during peaceful times. However, this assistance usually ended up in government stores and was hardly used for human consumption. Local residents preferred homegrown cereals and considered humanitarian food aid as food for the animals.

Following the onset of the civil war in Somalia in 1991, things have changed when the government structures and the social and economic institutions collapsed and brought about humanitarian crises resulting from insecurity, hunger and destitution.

During the peak of the humanitarian crises in the early 1990s when thousands of people were dying of starvation and famine due to complex conflict in Somalia, the world felt compelled to respond to the crises with emergency humanitarian interventions in order to save lives. The United Nations deployed thousands of multi-national troops under the banner of ‘Operation Restore Hope’ and later ‘United Nations Mission in Somalia (UNISOM)’ mandated to safeguard humanitarian response programmes that aimed to relieve people affected by the complex conflict, starvation and famine.

It was this period when many international humanitarian organizations arrived in the country and established their offices in several towns of Somalia to carry out humanitarian operations. In the process, many other national and local humanitarian organizations were also founded and most of them have partnered with the international aid organizations in their humanitarian efforts.

Over the next 28 years, these humanitarian organizations have been implementing programmes that covered almost every sector from health and nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene promotion, protection to education projects. The programmes have been designed to help people affected by the prolonged conflict and recurring natural cyclical disasters that have haunted Somalia ever since.

Was the humanitarian aid really helping?

Although all the efforts of the international community to help the Somali people hard hit by the continuous conflict and other natural calamities, one can question how far these humanitarian efforts have helped the vulnerable Somali people or whether they have really made tangible impacts on the served populations.

There have not been comparative surveys conducted in these years to measure improvements in the livelihoods and living standards of the affected populations as a result of years of humanitarian interventions in all sectors.

As a humanitarian worker for many years, it is a result-based question that I have asked myself, “What positive changes have all these years of humanitarian responses by the international and national aid groups brought to the assisted communities?

Despite the fact that the humanitarian assistance programmes contribute to the well-being of the affected communities, these interventions have apparently not had any tangible impacts on the communities over these years.

The programmes of the aid groups usually are designed to respond to emergencies and focus on the areas where there are emergency situations in the country, leaving out those vulnerable groups who phased out the emergency situation and not working on the resilience of the communities.

In the 1990s, the pretext of the humanitarian organization was that security did not allow them to implement large-scale developmental projects. However, now that transportation and communication means have improved and towns are more accessible, the conditions of the affected population still remain the same.

The types of projects that are being implemented in Somalia do not focus on the long-term durable solutions to address the economic, social and environmental problems. They need to be sustainable development programmes that improve the livelihoods of the affected population in the long term.

One example, a humanitarian aid group in Somalia responds to water crises by carrying out water trucking activity the cost of which could cover the drilling of a new borehole that is more sustainable and can serve communities in the long-term.

Another group may implement a cash transfer programme for a number of households for a period of time, but that only becomes short-lived after the project is phased out and beneficiaries return to their former state. Besides, it also creates ‘dependency on aid’ and people would not choose to work on their farms or other assets for sustainable livelihoods and development so long as they get used to the cash injections.

Aid groups should focus their attention on sustainable development programmes that benefit communities in the long term instead of wasting resources that do not last long for the affected communities


The international humanitarian responses in Somalia are yet to improve the living standards of the affected populations to an extent where communities are resilient to shocks and self-reliant capable of addressing sustainable and durable solutions for their economic, social and environmental problems.

Humanitarian responses continue to be in the ‘crises or emergency phases’ until the humanitarian organizations develop sustainable development policies and strategies that contribute to lasting solutions to persistent problems facing the affected communities.

The humanitarian organizations should also prioritize the targeting and selection criteria to ensure those vulnerable people targeted for assistance programmes are the right people and selected in fair and non-discriminatory processes that are inclusive of the marginalized and other disadvantaged people.

This move could ensure the humanitarian problems do not persist and communities can achieve sustainable livelihoods and development in the long run.

Mohamed Yerow,
BA in Development Studies
College Graduate, Business Studies

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect’s editorial stance.