Although suicide bombings and shootings continue in the Somali capital, the United Nations plans to triple its international presence in Mogadishu by July to stem corruption in aid projects managed from outside the country and so it can access new areas.
Somalia is one of the most dangerous and logistically difficult places to deliver aid, with 136 humanitarian staff killed there since 2000, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.
But optimism is growing after two decades of civil war. An African Union military offensive has driven al Shabaab insurgents from Mogadishu and the current government, elected in August, enjoys more legitimacy than its predecessors.
The U.N. has around 25 international staff based in Mogadishu, up from 15 two years ago.
“We should be up to 70 to 90 slots within three months and that will make a huge difference,” said Justin Brady, head of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia.
Foreign aid workers in Somalia risk being kidnapped by militants who demand huge ransom payments. In addition, al Shabaab has banned many international agencies from working in its territory, accusing them of creating aid dependency.
Brady is the first U.N. country director to live in Mogadishu for many years. Most agencies operate by ‘remote control’ out of neighbouring Kenya, getting local Somali partners to implement their projects.
“The point of it was to see whether you could be based there,” Brady told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I think we have proven that you can and that has attracted others.”
The head of the U.N.’s Development Programme moved to Mogadishu in December and his counterpart at the U.N.’s refugee agency followed in February, Brady said.
The country directors of the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the U.N.’s children’s fund are also planning to relocate to the city in the next couple of months, he said.
Britain opened an embassy in Mogadishu last week – the first Western power to do so – ahead of an international conference on Somalia in London on May 7.
Brady said that it is 10 times more expensive to operate out of Mogadishu than Nairobi because of security costs and the challenge of finding suitable offices in a city where many buildings have been reduced to rubble.
“When we go around Mogadishu, I am in an armoured vehicle with a vest on and an armed escort,” he said in an interview in Nairobi.
“People talk about the cost of going there, security and relocation and facilities. But the costs of staying here and trying to remote control it are, I think, much greater for our credibility and the relevance of our programming.”
International agencies have been severely criticised for failing to monitor or coordinate their aid projects.
A report by Refugees International said that the theft of aid from displaced people’s camps in Mogadishu was systemic. It gave examples of multiple donors funding the same latrine project and ‘ghost camps’ where tents and latrines are set up with no people living there.
“The lack of effective governance in Mogadishu, along with the ‘remote control’ approach that aid groups have taken in Somalia, have sustained this abusive system for years,” it said.
Brady admitted “a very low level of service delivery” and said an increased U.N. presence has improved its monitoring of national staff who supervise aid projects.
In the last few months, the U.N.’s Office of Internal Oversight Services has visited Mogadishu to check the records of one of the U.N.’s partner agencies, he said.
Across Somalia, the U.N. says there are one million people in crisis, down from 4 million at the height of the 2011 famine.
However, access has not improved significantly since then, with international agencies still only able to reach about half of those in need.
Brady said the U.N. now has a presence in several major towns like Baidoa in Bay region and Xudur in Bakool region, which extend north-west of coastal Mogadishu up to the Ethiopian border.
But they are essentially garrison towns, surrounded by rebel-controlled countryside. Aid has to be brought in by air, which is expensive.
This has discouraged other agencies from moving in.
“There isn’t the ability to move about freely even in these areas where you have government or aligned control,” he said. “Even where Shabaab doesn’t necessarily have influence, it has the ability to strike and disrupt.”
Al Shabaab has said it plans to launch more attacks after it killed 30 people in a coordinated wave of shootings and bombings in Mogadishu on April 14.
Xafiiska Wararka Midnimo, email@example.com