A Somali girl displaced by drought drinks clean water distributed by AMISOM troops. (© DfID)

In recent years, humanitarians have been increasingly focused on the perceived shrinking of humanitarian space—that the ability of humanitarian actors to provide assistance to populations affected by conflict and crisis is becoming increasingly restricted. The narrative of humanitarian space is associated with another narrative, that of humanitarian politics—how humanitarian action has directly or indirectly impacted political structures or been politicised through deliberate manipulation for political purposes (e.g. stabilisation and counterterrorism agendas).

Somalia, and South Central Somalia in particular, has frequently been used as an example of how humanitarian space has become a “scare commodity” as a result. One particularly “significant dimension of humanitarian space in Somalia has been how emergency and development assistance has been very closely integrated into the country’s political economy” which weaves together “legal and illegal business transactions, diversion, taxation, etc., and the power dynamics that govern these activities”. This is joined by other patterns of humanitarian politics, such as the legitimacy that can be ascribed to non-state actors as a result of engagement with humanitarian actors.

The legacy of humanitarian politics in Somalia is part of the narrative of the impact of humanitarian assistance in Somalia, reflections that have informed discussions on how relief assistance can harm the people it is trying to assist. It has been argued that while humanitarian agencies aim to be neutral and impartial in their operations, “the impact of their aid is not neutral regarding whether conflict worsens or abates. When given in conflict settings, aid can reinforce, exacerbate, and prolong conflict” alongside its positive benefits.

The ‘harmful’ impact of humanitarian assistance in Somalia during the 1990s has been a prominent example in these discussions of how aid can fuel conflict. For example, it has been argued that, in the 1990s “factional leaders used funding from international sources (including humanitarian organisations) to legitimise their claims to power and their standing as warlords”. Moreover, while humanitarian assistance is part of a broader war economy in many conflicts, in Somalia it has been particularly “prominent”.

Assessing the impact of aid

The reflections on the impact and role of humanitarian action in conflict-affected environments in the 1990s led to the introduction of ethical and technical standards in humanitarian relief (e.g. The Sphere Project) as well as frameworks to provide guidance on limiting ‘harm’ (e.g. the Do No Harm Framework). However in the last decade, while questioning the impact of humanitarian assistance “has moved-up the humanitarian agenda” and become a “prevalent topic in humanitarian evaluation discourse today”, in Somalia this subject has gone quiet and almost disappeared from public discourse. While there was a flurry of attention over a 2010 UN Monitoring Group report on the relationship between UN World Food Programme contractors and armed groups and increased donor discussions on accountability, this has since died down and little is actually known about the impact and unintended consequences of humanitarian assistance in Somalia.

For example, a recent evaluation of the humanitarian response in South Central Somalia from 2005 – 2010—described by Somalia’s Humanitarian Coordinator as “one of the most comprehensive evaluations of aid in Somalia ever conducted”—was largely unable to address the question of impact or make “sustained assumptions about [the] potential impact of humanitarian assistance”. Another inter-agency evaluation specifically commissioned to assess the 2011 ‘drought crisis’ concluded, “the extent of effective implementation is still uncertain, as is the impact of the response on the overall situation”.

Measuring impact is a daunting task as it aims to consider the social, economic, environmental and technical effects of humanitarian interventions “on individuals, gender- and age-groups, communities and institutions. Impacts can be intended and unintended, positive and negative, macro (sector) and micro (household)”. Such analyses are no simple effort, yet two factors associated with measuring these long-term changes are outputs and outcomes. Outputs refer to the specific activities and services conducted by and/or goods provided by a humanitarian agency and intervention while outcome refers to the “likely or achieved short-term and medium-term effects of an intervention’s outputs”. However, as the 2011 ‘drought crisis’ evaluation observed, there has been a focus by agencies on “outputs rather than outcomes” which can “mean that [the] wider effects of aid interventions (positive and negative) are not adequately accounted for in the feedback mechanisms”. On top of this, knowledge of outputs has also been limited, for as the evaluation concluded, “accountability for outputs is currently weak and urgently needs strengthening”.

Moreover, the 2012 UN Monitoring Group report investigation into the diversion and misappropriation of humanitarian assistance observed that while Somalia presents serious operational challenges for aid organisations to verify if aid was actually delivered and if beneficiaries were actually real, “[r]eports by third-party monitors engaged by some aid agencies…present a mixed assessment, confirming that diversion was indeed a serious problem but that in some cases aid agencies and donors chose to ignore or bury reports to this effect.” In cases where diversion is confirmed, the impact of this is largely beyond the scope of the inquiry.

It is not the intention here to suggest that aid is fuelling conflict to the extent as occurred in the 1990s or if it is fuelling conflict and instability at all, and evaluations have observed that humanitarian assistance has directly and indirectly helped to save lives. However, with the current monitoring and reflection limitations (or disinclinations) of humanitarian agencies, the impact of the unintended consequences of assistance has become an unknown. This in turn begs the question—how can relief agencies be sure they have learned the lessons of the past? How can they be sure of their role in the social, economic and political dynamics of conflict? With Somalia’s legacy of humanitarian politics and an operating environment in which some agencies have “compromised and subjugated [humanitarian principles] to the greater goal of maintaining operating access,” should not the discussion of humanitarian space in Somalia open up to greater critical examination? Should not space be made for the essential question of the impact of humanitarian assistance?