Fragile Somalia loses two lifelines in quick succession




Already reeling like a boxer on the ropes, Somalia’s so-called recovery is about to be derailed by a brutal one-two punch as Médecins Sans Frontières withdraws its medical services and Barclays cuts off the main remittance pipeline. It’s a devastating double blow for a country that still needs all the help it can get. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s not all doom and gloom coming out of Somalia. This weekend, the capital Mogadishu hosted its very own TEDx conference, featuring a line-up of inspirational speakers with genuinely incredible stories: Iman Elman, the 21-year-old woman who is a commander in Somalia’s army; Abdifatah Ahmed, the journalist who has defied persecution, and his own blindness, to tell Somalia’s stories; Mohamed Mahamoud Sheik, the young entrepreneur who opened the first dry cleaners in Mogadishu in 20 years, because he noticed the president kept sending his suits to be washed overseas.

For Sebastian Lindstrom, the event’s communications director, TEDx Mogadishu is a symbol that war torn Somalia that has turned a corner.

“2012 was the year that peace returned to Somalia,” he told the Guardian. “It was largely seen as the ‘rebirth’ of the country, with the formation of parliament, election of the president and cabinet of ministers. For the first time in over two decades, Somalia had an internationally recognised federal government. Although the peace and stability remains fragile, in 2013 more Somalis are returning to their country than ever before, rediscovering the home they hadn’t seen in decades, and for some young diaspora, had never seen. Even Somalis who have never left Mogadishu are rediscovering their city, swimming in Lido beach, enjoying new cafes, and attending international conferences like TEDx.”

Lindstrom paints a pretty picture. Not everyone, however, is convinced. (Not least of all myself. See Somalia: a ‘good news story’ that’s far from over on Daily Maverick, 11 June 2013). Even if we buy into the optimism, however, two recent developments threaten to overshadow the country’s fragile progress.

The first came from an unlikely source. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical NGO that has worked in warzones all over the world, and in Somalia for 22 years, announced that it was withdrawing from Somalia with immediate effect. Despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis (which Somalia’s so-called successes have done little to mitigate), MSF said the security situation has become so dangerous and unpredictable that they are no longer able to reasonably guarantee the safety of their staff. In particular, MSF has lost faith in the ability, or willingness, of authorities in various parts of the country (including the government, Al-Shabaab, armed groups and clan structures) to prevent further incidents.

Coming from an organisation with an exceptionally high tolerance for risk, this is a sad indictment of all the various groups in different parts of the country claiming to represent the Somali people. It’s nothing short of a disaster for the country and for the hundreds of thousands of patients who relied on MSF as their only credible healthcare provider. In 2012, MSF saw 624,200 patients in its centres in nine districts across Somalia; 41,100 were admitted to hospitals (which MSF provided), while 30,090 were treated for malnutrition.

In an interview with MSF general director Arjan Hehenkamp, who was clearly anguished by what was an extremely difficult decision, Daily Maverick asked whether MSF agreed with the idea that Somalia was making good progress. “MSF is not a political commentator, we are not the Economist and we don’t make a prognosis on the context and so forth,” said Hehenkamp. “That’s not our job, or our competence. But when we look at Somalia and when we look at our experience and our patient numbers in Somalia, it seems there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis and there continues to be violence and strife, which affects the population significantly.

“There continues to be territorial disputes and armed altercations between various groups in Somalia that affect that population. And we see that we have tens of thousands of patients coming into our facilities every single month, without any reasonable alternative being present for most of these patients … And therefore that makes our decision such a heavy and painful one, and one that we wouldn’t have made unless we were forced into making that decision.”

MSF has already begun shutting down its Somali operations, trying to finish treating the patients it had already admitted before closing up shop completely. The withdrawal should be complete within the next week or two, and with it will go Somalia’s only reliable, functioning health system.

The second development that’s clouding Somalia’s horizons is one that the country has little to no control over. In London, thousands of miles away, Barclays bank announced that it will stop offering banking services to Somali remittance agencies – the last British bank to do so. The suspension was due to come into effect at the end of August, but has been delayed by another month as campaigners, including British Olympian Mo Farah, urge the bank to reconsider.

While Barclays is concerned, with some justification, about the remittance services being used to launder money, its decision will cut off the only legal means to transfer money from the UK to Somalia. The importance of remittances to the Somali economy cannot be understated. Many families in Somalia are entirely dependent on funds sent by friends or relatives overseas. Diaspora Somalis send home around $1.3-billion each year, of which $500-million comes from the UK. To put that it perspective, it’s more than the country’s entire GDP.

In a strong editorial, the Financial Times called on Barclays to reconsider their decision. “As things stand, hundreds of thousands of Somalis will lose their only source of income, remittances will be driven underground where benevolent funding will be even harder to distinguish from illicit flows, and Barclays’ reputation will take a hit. The aid agencies and western governments attempting to strengthen Somalia’s fragile recovery after 22 years of civil war will also be deprived of an essential tool for promoting stability. It is hard to imagine a greater victory for those in Somalia attempting to spoil the peace.”

MSF’s withdrawal and the impending remittances crisis is a double blow aimed at two of Somalia’s most important sectors: health and the economy. Even if it has made some progress in the last year, the country still needs all the help it can get, and this loss will only retard its development even further. DM