Somalia Needs Integrated Relief Efforts

A Somali woman hands her malnourished child to a medical officer of the African Union Mission in Somalia, a regional peacekeeping mission operated by the African Union. (UN Photo by Stuart Price)

Lawlessness, famine, piracy … all pose serious challenges in present-day Somalia. The country’s problems are interwoven and complicated; therefore, adequate solutions must be equally complex, integrating actions such as women’s education, food aid — and environmental protection.

The need for integrated assistance efforts was a central theme at this week’s panel discussion, “Lessons Learned from the Crisis in Somalia,” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event brought together journalists, government representatives, academics and NGO staff, all there to learn from the three distinguished panelists: Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice; Walid Abdelkarim, principal officer and team leader for Somalia and support to the African Union in the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations; and Geoff Dabelko, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.

Drawing on their considerable experiences working in Somalia, the panelists painted a sobering picture of a country struggling on almost all fronts. The last few years have been some of the hottest on record for Somalia — a shift largely attributable to climate change — which has led to widespread famine and, according to the U.N., has pushed half the country’s population into crisis. Massive deforestation across Somalia — largely for the charcoal trade — has left poor populations especially vulnerable to natural disasters like drought, as they have fewer alternative resources they can rely on in times of emergency.

Finding solutions to these issues is made especially complicated by the fact that Somalia hasn’t had a globally-recognized national government for 19 years. In addition, the country has the eighth-highest birthrate in the world; President Robinson described a recent visit with Somali refugees at a camp in Kenya where she asked women how many children they had, and, “not a single woman said less than six.”

In order to facilitate real change, Somalia’s problems cannot be dealt with separately. Abdelkarim explained how in the current international relief system, efforts are often categorized as “food” or “non-food” aid, and stressed that this oversimplification limits the effectiveness of the efforts. Dabelko brought up the example of piracy, which in recent years has become an issue of international security. He stressed that one of the root causes of the surge in piracy is overfishing, which has decimated fish populations and destroyed livelihoods, leaving fishers to search for new sources of income.

Educating women and girls, providing access to contraception and improving medical care all have been proven to reduce fertility rates. Protecting and restoring Somalia’s natural ecosystems would help secure food resources for the country’s malnourished populations. And an international commitment to climate change action could help to mitigate extreme weather events like the drought that led to the famine in the first place.

Ultimately, the current situation in Somalia is indicative of larger global issues. President Robinson pointed out that the world’s 50 poorest countries contribute less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet they are disproportionately bearing the brunt of climate change impacts. The panelists emphasized that the world’s developed countries must not give up on Somalia. As Abdelkarim put it, “Somalia is not at a point where it can take care of itself. Ignoring it now will only allow it to deteriorate.”

Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team. “Lessons Learned from the Crisis in Somalia” was sponsored by the Aspen Institute as part of their series, “7 Billion: Conversations that Matter.”


  1. John Alejandro says

    The Solar Electric Light Fund ( believes that energy access is essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. It is foundational to their success and plays a critical role in achieving food security by providing greater access to water in regions of the world that solely rely on rain to irrigate crops.

    For example, in 2007, SELF installed three solar-powered drip irrigation systems for women farming collectives in the villages of Dunkassa and Bessassi, located in Benin, West Africa. A two-year Stanford University study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the system, “significantly augments both household income and nutritional intake, particularly during the dry season, and is cost-effective compared to alternative technologies.” It also found that not only had nutrition improved in the villages, but income levels also increased, helping to pay for school fees, medical treatment, and other economic development initiatives.

    An integrated approach to solving the challenges of Somalia is absolutely critical, and energy can help connect many of the dots.

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