Photo: Young girls line up at a feeding centre in Mogadishu, 2017. (Credit: UN Photo/Tobin Jones).

International aid in Somalia is going to be crucial in the country’s fight against COVID-19. But in a complex context with a chequered history of international assistance, efforts to save lives must guard against inadvertently causing harm and build on existing Somali-led efforts for long-term peace. Tim Midgley and Alastair Carr highlight six lessons for the aid sector to consider as part of a conflict-sensitive response to COVID-19.

As of 13 April Somalia had 60 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). In the context of a weak healthcare system, ongoing insecurity, major flooding and an expected return of locust swarms, COVID-19 could be catastrophic to the three million people living in the densely packed capital Mogadishu and half a million internally displaced people in crowded camps around the city.

The aid sector in Somalia, alongside the UN and the government, has moved quickly to prepare for the new reality. A number of Somali organisations have come together to raise the alarm about the virus and commit to addressing its impacts. The Somali Red Crescent Society and International Committee of the Red Cross have committed to sharing information on how to prevent COVID-19 to 120,000 households and training 500 health-workers. The UN has raised US$57.8 million to increase its response over the next nine months, while the World Food Programme is planning to distribute two months’ worth of food rations in light of the deteriorating situation.

For aid agencies COVID-19 will make an already complex situation even harder to navigate. There is a risk that political divisions between federal and sub-national governments could deepen, which could impact the coherence of any national response to the outbreak. Al-Shabaab controls large parts of rural southern Somalia and it is likely the organisation will continue to deny access to aid agencies seeking to help communities, causing people to move to other areas in search of medical support, food or shelter. With international travel largely curtailed, the aid sector will struggle to bring in the support needed to scale up its response.

There are risks that aid could inflame existing tensions; by being diverted towards those involved in violence, by being seen to go to one group more than another, or by being distributed in a way that reinforces the marginalisation of particular communities or groups. Here are six recommendations that draw on the principles and practices of conflict sensitivity for how aid agencies might respond:

1. The most effective responses to COVID-19 will learn from the failures of past crisis response in Somalia, build on present work and look to the future

The impact of COVID-19 on Somalis will be determined not just by the character of the disease, but by the social and political conditions of the country. Yet in past crises in Somalia, risk-averse approaches from aid agencies have avoided the messy but vital work of building the ability of societies to develop and manage the next crisis. This time around aid agencies need to support the responses of Somali communities, civil society and government bodies to COVID-19. Aid can be used to support, adapt and develop new programmes that harness lessons from existing initiatives that are tackling existing problems, whether social divisions, climate change or poor governance. In its 2020 strategy for instance, the Somalia Protection Cluster has already committed to focus on conflict prevention by supporting community-based conflict resolution. But building on the materials of a historically divided society comes with its risks. Huge investment in federal government structures responding to COVID-19 could aggravate existing grievances held against it, including among federal member states, with potential repercussions for communities. These risks must be fully mapped, understood and deliberately managed rather than ignored, in order to reap the relative benefits of working with existing initiatives and ways of working, rather than starting from scratch.

2. Support and promote Somali-led responses

With unrivalled knowledge of the conflicts and contexts they work in and on, Somali-led organisations and community groups must form a significant part of the humanitarian response. This may mean international aid agencies developing new partnership models with Somali organisations. These could focus on longer timeframes and long-term goals, while being able to adapt to the changing needs of communities. These partnerships must move from transactional relationships – in which Somali agencies are expected to deliver services and manage the risks involved as part of programmes paid for and designed by international organisations – towards two-way partnerships; relationships that are built to last. They can prioritise building trust, creating an environment that encourages honest discussion on conflict sensitivity risks where often these are obscured to maintain the illusion of total compliance with aid restrictions. From the outset Somali partners should be supported to develop their own strategies, whether through core funding that is predictable and multi-year or through strengthening resources that respond to their needs. An urgent first step here could be support to help Somali organisations manage the immediate risks of infection to their staff and partners, even if that means contingency funding while programmes are suspended.

3. The response must consider gender

Patriarchal gender norms in Somalia mean that women are likely to have a disproportionate role in caring for family members affected by COVID-19, which will increase their own chances of infection. Many may be forced to give up their means of providing income or pursuing an education. Already, this choice has been made for many Somali women, as travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings have decimated the trade in the popular stimulant, khat, and closed tea shops, often run by women. At the same time men may come under pressure to ignore restrictions or advice on social distancing to maintain their household’s income, by migrating or in some cases joining armed groups. There is a risk that overstretched public services and aid agencies deprioritise the crucial services that focus on women despite the risk of increased violence against them due to stresses from the pandemic and its economic, social or psychological effects. Responding to these risks is vital, but an awareness of the ways in which aid can reinforce gender inequalities or enhance risks of sexual or gender-based violence is equally important. Gender-sensitive approaches are best designed and implemented by organisations where different genders are properly represented.

4. Cash transfers must be sensitive to fragile markets

The Somali economy will be hit hard by the global ramifications of COVID-19. Reliable sources of income such as remittances, which account for up to a third of the economy, and livestock exports have crashed as the global economy reacts to the virus. Aid will become an even more precious commodity as funding foreseeably drops while donor countries focus on repairing the damage caused by COVID-19 at home. What aid does come through might then become the subject of more intense, and potentially violent, competition either among communities or between warring parties seeking to divert it. There are dangers that it could play a harmful, distortionary effect on the economy if not distributed carefully.

Cash transfers will play an important role in compensating for losses in incomes and the remittances from diaspora that are a very significant source of cash for many households. But their impact relies on a functioning private sector able to supply goods to buy with the cash. With COVID-19 likely to make trade and border-crossings more difficult, supply of goods into the market may be constrained. Cash transfers could therefore exacerbate inflation, preventing access to basic goods for the most vulnerable, and have a further impact on vulnerable groups not able to access cash schemes. This could potentially generate or intensify community tensions particularly if those with and without access to the scheme reflect existing clan-based or gender inequalities. Some agencies have asked teams to monitor prices more frequently and explore means of supporting markets as well as communities to remedy this. Beyond this, sharing information widely and consulting with different groups on the likely impacts of each cash intervention would produce useful guidance, alongside lessons gathered by the Somalia Cash Working Group among others.

5. Data and learning must be pooled across the sector

Analysis of the context in Somalia can be sensitive, difficult to produce and expensive, but it is critical to delivering aid in a conflict sensitive way. Too often analysis is commissioned but not shared with the wider aid community. This leads to duplication and an inefficient use of resources. To a large extent, agencies can incorporate conflict analysis into any joint needs assessments they are carrying out, and existing conflict and violence monitoring can be shared across all organisations, regardless of their specialism. Somali organisations will be more critical than usual in this response, and speaking honestly about conflict dynamics will be a sensitive but highly beneficial approach. Bringing this data and analysis together, and supporting agencies to interpret and make use of it would save considerable resources at a time when donor funding may become limited. It would also democratise the response enabling Somali-led organisations to develop a strong foundation of understanding that agencies can build on for future crises.

6. Cultivating public trust in messages on public health

With the political landscape in Somalia so fragmented, conflicting messages on COVID-19 and the best means of preventing infection are common and counterproductive. Measures to close mosques and Koranic schools have met with mixed reactions from religious leaders, while Al-Shabaab has insisted the disease is a Western plot. Opposition figures have pre-emptively called for elections to go ahead regardless of the dangers of infection that it may pose for those participating. To cut through this noise aid agencies can work with their Somali civil society partners to identify reliable communication networks that are connected to vulnerable groups. Somali partners can then lead in developing appropriate messages, the format they will be communicated through and sharing them widely by drawing on their links with trusted religious and traditional authority figures, before feeding back on how people are interpreting those messages.

Somalis face many more difficult days ahead as COVID-19 inevitably takes a further hold in the country. The international aid community will have a critical partnership role to play in curtailing the virus’ worst impacts. But Somalis deserve a response that meets their demands and expectations and seizes opportunities for collaboration, peacebuilding and Somali-leadership. This requires an approach anchored in Somali knowledge, designed and coordinated with civil society partners. While public health is the current priority, the response should acknowledge and seek to address the conflicts that have plagued the country long before COVID-19, rather than ignore them or worse, provoke them further.