Interview: Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Bowden

Displaced children in a camp in Bossaso, Puntland. Credit: OCHA/R. Maingi
Remembering Somalis for their capacity to deal with adversity.

Mark Bowden, the former Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, was recently appointed to lead humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. Before he left for Kabul, he spoke to OCHA about his experiences in Somalia, where he spent the majority of his four years responding to one of the most acute humanitarian emergencies in the world. Famine conditions were declared in large parts of southern Somalia in July 2011, and an intensifying conflict made it difficult for humanitarian organizations to get assistance to people in need. The famine conditions were lifted in February 2012, mostly due to an exceptional harvest and a massive aid operation

Q. You were in Somalia for four years throughout famine and conflict. What were some of the most challenging decisions you had to make?

One of them was the declaration of famine itself… The difficulty with it was to try and clarify the technical basis for the decisions. There was pressure not to declare famine because people didn’t understand the criteria that were being used.

I spoke on behalf of everybody, the whole of the humanitarian community, which was very unified around that particular decision and the importance of declaring famine. Having done it, we realized that we changed the whole nature of the way assistance was being offered. There were some concerns on whether we should have acted earlier, but we technically could not make a declaration of famine. We had expressed our concerns a lot earlier about moving towards famine, but it wasn’t until the declaration that things really began to change.    

One of the other key challenges that I faced was when we had the first bombings in the first two years of my time in Somalia. We had quite a few assassinations of humanitarian workers and a difficult environment for them to work in. The challenges were on when to speak out and whether speaking out would put people in more danger. Learning how to talk about the challenges facing humanitarian workers and creating the humanitarian space for them to work is also one of the biggest issues surrounding my job.  

Q. Has the humanitarian access improved given the recent political strides made in the country?   

Yes and no. The political change has only affected certain parts of the country. People need to realize that large parts of Somalia are still under the control of Al Shabaab and are not accessible to international organizations. Not all Somali organizations have access either. The security situation has changed and there have been improvements in places like Mogadishu, but it would be unwise to say that it is more secure.

The worry in these environments is that as the war moves into a different phase, different tactics are used and humanitarian personnel may be targeted again. Personally, I hope that that doesn’t happen and that we have learned from experience. I think we have also invested a lot more in far better security and risk management in these environments.

Q. What is the one thing you remember about the Somali people?

What I remember about Somalis is their resilience, and their capacity to come back and deal with quite incredible adversity. In some parts of the country, like in Somaliland in the north-west, there is an incredible capacity for development—very effective agricultural schemes and access to services. What I remember the most is the incredible diversity that exists between the movement towards development and a really deep humanitarian crisis.

There have also been other visits that have shocked me. I have been to camps for displaced people and some of the conditions in many parts of Mogadishu and in some of the other towns are far worse than in Darfur or anywhere else. There are conditions of overcrowding, poor shelters and sanitation congestion, but it is a very, very complex issue to deal with because it is caught up with property issues.

Q. How do you think you made a difference in the lives of Somalis in need?

As a humanitarian community, flawed as it may have been, most Somalis would remember us for responding to the famine and making it public, drawing attention to the international community and stopping the world at large from walking away from its responsibilities. I think that the humanitarian community as a whole worked very effectively together at that time.

Q. Are you looking forward to your new assignment in Afghanistan?

I am very much looking forward to it. I’ve learned how to work in a challenging security environment while in Somalia, but I recognize that it will be a very different assignment. I very much look forward to a whole new series of challenges.

Q. Next year is going to be a challenging time for humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan given the drawdown of the international military. What are your concerns? 

There are concerns about what it means in terms of security, but it is also very much an opportunity—an opportunity for UN agencies to find a bit more of their own space in developing more appropriate partnerships that could lead towards normalization in the country. I think with a large military presence it is very difficult to work towards more normal relationships, so we also need to look at it in terms of the opportunities that it offers rather than just the threats that it could potentially pose.  


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