from 'Our Own George Clooney: the UN in Somalia'
Excerpted from the Dublin Review Issue 29, Winter 2007-8


In his book Happiness, the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard tells the story of a King of Persia who instructed his loyal scribe to produce a history of mankind so that he could draw the necessary lessons and see the best way to proceed. After consulting with historians, scholars and sages, the scribe presented the king with a history in thirty-six volumes. Naturally, the king hadn’t time to read this and told the scribe to condense it, which he did – to ten volumes. By then, war was raging and the king had even less time for reading. He asked the scribe to cut the history to a single volume; the scribe complied. Even this was too much, however, and the king requested tenfold fewer pages and promised to read them in an evening. But by the time the scribe returned, the king was on his deathbed. With his final breath, the king asked, Well, what of the history of men? In the ultimate abridgement, his loyal scribe replied: They suffer.

   For a year it was my job to report on Somalia for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. With my colleagues in the information department I produced ‘public situation reports’ (or ‘sitreps’), monthly humanitarian analyses, press releases, internal reports to the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, talking points for various meetings and PowerPoint presentations. All of this information-gathering and dissemination was done so that we – our office and the UN agencies and NGOs with which we worked – could draw the necessary lessons and see the best way to proceed. Mostly, the hundreds of thousands of words I produced on the plight of Somalis boiled down to: They suffer.

Because the office is based in Nairobi, and because language has a way of detaching itself from its own referents, Somali misery often seemed unreal. We sometimes used the phrase ‘unnecessary suffering’, usually when issuing a press release begging people to stop killing each other, suggesting that there was a kind of suffering, or a level, that was necessary and that we were all in agreement on what that was. In the early months of my job, I heard of 58,000 children suffering from malnutrition. I heard the figure so many times that I came to imagine them as a single entity – a band of stick figures, 58,000 strong, shuffling across the arid wastelands. The language of malnutrition is unsettling, with its clinical references to MUAC (mid-upper-arm circumference), its life-saving formula titled like a tax form (the therapeutic milk F75), and the oft-coupled GAM and SAM, which sound like a comic duo but stand instead for the potentially lethal states of Global and Severe Acute Malnutrition.

   Some of what I wrote was based on reports we received from our Somali colleagues in the field. They also sent us photos – of locusts and emaciated cattle and starving children, of withered crops and child soldiers and people missing limbs. One day, out of an impulse I could only guess at, a colleague sent us eleven pictures of the sunset over Gedo.

   Of the 265 UN international staff currently involved with operations in Somalia, only 86 are based in the country itself. None of these (save two security staff) are in Mogadishu, where the UN has not had a permanent international humanitarian presence since 1995. (There are currently 70 Somalis working for UN agencies in Mogadishu.) The rest of the UN international staff dealing with Somalia – including the Humanitarian Coordinator and all Heads of Agencies – are based in Nairobi; all high-level decision-making takes place in Nairobi. Between two-day or two-week trips to Somalia, internationals enjoy relatively luxurious lives, and there is no doubt that being in Nairobi left us somewhat out of touch. As one of my Somali colleagues used to remind me, there is Nairobi-Somalia and Somalia-Somalia. The reason the mission is run from outside the country is, of course, that Somalia is (and has for some time been) unstable and unsafe. But there is a feeling in Somalia, among the general population and the authorities, that the money spent keeping us in Nairobi would be better spent on the humanitarian needs of Somalis.


Flying in to Wajid on my first visit to Somalia, we passed over brown arid fields that looked capable of producing nothing and yet were divided into small careful squares, as though by a stick, the way a volleyball court might be marked out on a flat stretch of beach. Located in the South/Central zone, Wajid, with its tiny airfield, was jokingly referred to as a ‘hub’. (I was in transit, on my way to Hargeisa in Somaliland, the north-western region that had claimed independence from Somalia in 1994.) UN and NGO workers slouched on the concrete benches, waiting to fly further into Somalia or back to Nairobi, and a Somali man sold souvenirs – old Italian coins and milk gourds and jewellery. Beyond the airstrip’s boundaries, plastic bags (bleached by the sun to the palest pastels) bloomed on thorny shrubs.

This was August 2006 and South/Central Somalia – and particularly Mogadishu – was enjoying a season of relative peace. Since 1991, when regional insurgent groups had overthrown the dictator Siad Barre and then turned on each other, warlords – each with his own militia – had run Mogadishu and other parts of South/Central. But between June and August, fighters of the Islamic Courts Union had defeated the US-backed group of warlords known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, and had taken control of the capital and much of the surrounding region. In the space of a few weeks the ICU had done what two internationally backed governments, two UN missions and the American military had failed to do: tame Mogadishu.

   Was this good news? In a way, yes. The people of Mogadishu were reported to be happy. Not necessarily because they were keen on Shari’a law (Somalia’s brand of Sufi Islam is essentially moderate, and the Somali population in general has been regarded as far too individualistic to embrace an extremist agenda) but because anything was better than the warlords. The citizens shown celebrating on CNN weren’t choosing between liberal democracy and the veil. They were choosing between chaos and predictability. They wanted, like people everywhere, to be able to go from one end of town to the other without being taxed, robbed, shot at, raped or murdered. And the ICU, for the most part, was enabling this. The ubiquitous checkpoints and roadblocks had been dismantled, and freedom of movement had greatly increased. A clean-up campaign was underway around the city.   

   The mood in our office and among the humanitarian organizations we worked with was one of guarded optimism – though the levels of guardedness and optimism varied considerably. There was little doubt that the rise of the ICU represented a sea change in Somalia; it just wasn’t clear what direction the change would take. In August, the ICU established an office to ‘coordinate humanitarian agencies’, expressing in a communiqué both their ‘respect’ for such agencies for having provided assistance to Somalis during fifteen years of lawlessness and their condolences to the families and friends of those who had lost their lives in the effort. The ICU document pledged to respect international conventions relating to aid workers and to ensure the security of expatriate and local humanitarian staff. However, it quickly became apparent that a schism was brewing in the ICU, with the extremists seemingly in the ascendant. In addition, a radical jihadist wing – the Shabaab (meaning ‘youth’) – had formed, committed to the establishment of an Islamic state through armed revolution and reportedly rejecting any dealings with international aid organizations.

   There was disagreement between New York and Nairobi as to whether the UN’s Somalia operation should have direct dealings with the head of the radical element in the ICU, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys. The UN’s humanitarian arm in Nairobi was arguing that it should have the right to speak to anyone who could help it to gain access to people in need of assistance, while policy people in New York – mindful of the awkward fact that three ICU leaders were on a UN ‘blacklist’ of people suspected of ties to Al-Qaeda – resisted the idea. Meanwhile, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, along with various heads of UN agencies, had begun travelling to Mogadishu to meet with non-blacklisted members of the ICU about humanitarian access and assistance. The Humanitarian Coordinator never met directly with Aweys. Still, when he returned from meetings with the Islamists, there was a whiff of sulfur about him.


Our office was heavily involved in ‘advocacy’. More effective advocacy with all ‘stakeholders’ could help us to increase humanitarian access and the level of assistance delivered. We hired a consultant for six months to develop an ‘advocacy strategy’, and in September 2006 we had an ‘advocacy workshop’ in Nairobi to discuss and refine strategies. UN agencies and international and Somali NGOs were present. Much of the time was spent delineating how Somalis viewed the international community and how, through better advocacy, we could correct the misperceptions (e.g., that we were actually all spies working for the CIA) and address the more legitimate criticisms (e.g., that our numerous assessments were too seldom followed by assistance).

   The day involved much self-flagellation among the non-Somalis. We didn’t listen to Somalis. We didn’t ‘share ownership’ with them. We failed to display enough cultural sensitivity. We were arrogant and ignorant and basically useless. The self-criticism seemed to arise from an insistence on our taking sole responsibility for everything that was wrong with Somalia. What we didn’t discuss that day – though what everyone there knew about – were things like the occasional attacks by Somalis on UN World Food Programme convoys; the fact that local authorities manipulated and misused aid by insisting it be distributed on the basis of clan; that aid agencies had for the past several years been paying exorbitant fees at checkpoints in order to move aid across the country; that Somalis on the UN payroll in programmes to eradicate female genital mutilation continued to have their daughters mutilated; that often there was no work done after midday because that was when the khat-chewing began and that it was virtually impossible to rebuild a country on four hours’ work a day.

   It was generally agreed at the workshop that the world suffered from Somalia fatigue. We were all sadly aware that Somalia and its cycle of misery were not ‘sexy’. So one of the issues of the day was: how could we raise the profile of Somalia and reawaken the world to the scale of suffering that has become routine for its people? As Darfur was then enjoying the attentions of Hollywood, a woman from UNICEF said, in what seemed one of the more candid suggestions of the day, ‘We need our own George Clooney.’

© Copyright Molly McCloskey
Photos taken in Wajid, Somalia, and Hargeisa, Somaliland by the author