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Q&A with UNICEF Somalia’s Hannan Sulieman: ‘It’s about children, no matter where they are’

NAIROBI, Kenya, 31 October 2011 – In a recent conversation with UNICEF.org, Hannan Sulieman, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Somalia, described the daunting challenges that face Somali children and families amidst the Horn of Africa’s worst crisis in decades.
VIDEO: October 2011 – UNICEF Deputy Representative in Somalia Hannan Sulieman talks about working in the best interests of Somali children amidst drought, famine and conflict.  Watch in RealPlayer


The epicentre of the crisis is in central and southern Somalia, where famine was declared on 20 July. An estimated 750,000 people there, including 160,000 severely malnourished children, are at imminent risk. Across all of Somalia, 4 million people, half of them children, urgently need humanitarian assistance.

Against this dire backdrop, Sulieman answered some of the key questions.

UNICEF.org: What is the overall status of children in Somalia just over three months after the declaration of famine in the south?

Hannan Sulieman: In southern Somalia, we’re still in a situation where over 40 per cent of children are malnourished, and amongst them, 50 per cent are severely malnourished – which is really beyond any acceptable level. Even before the famine was declared, we were above emergency thresholds for malnutrition. Outside the famine areas, the situation is also incredibly difficult for children. This is a children’s famine. Large numbers of children are dying on a daily basis.

UNICEF.org: Will conditions improve with the current harvest season?

HS: We have to recognize that it’s a small harvest. We need to continue supporting the children in southern Somalia. We have invested over the years in the programmes there, and then, of course, after the famine was declared, we got a huge amount of financial support. Donors have been very generous. Since then, we’ve scaled up the nutrition programme, the health programme, as well as water and the other sectors, and we will continue doing so until mid-2012.

UNICEF.org: The October-to-December ‘short rains’ have started in some areas. What impact will they have?

HS: The information we have is that they’re average or below average. We’ll have to see the impact over time, but again, this is not the major harvest. We do not think it will be a huge difference, so the assistance will have to continue.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1182/Holt
Children and women queue for food in the Badbado camp for internally displaced persons in Mogadishu, Somalia.

In terms of any negative impact of the rains, we’re trying to make sure that we’re prepared in case of disease outbreaks or flooding. We know already that there’s flooding in some of the IDP camps that are in the lowlands, and other partners, led by UNHCR, are trying to respond to that. In terms of disease control, we’ve pre-positioned supplies, and we’ve done a lot of training on case management in case of malaria or acute watery diarrhoea.

UNICEF.org: How does UNICEF work in areas of Somalia where humanitarian access is limited?

HS: It’s important to put that in perspective. UNICEF has been in Somalia since 1972, and we’ve never left any part of southern Somalia. Our national staff are really the ones who are carrying this programme forward in the south. Also over the years, we’ve had a variety of partners because we work in so many sectors. Through our public-private partnerships in the water programme, there are about 500,000 people benefitting throughout Somalia. And we have partnerships with over 100 NGOs and community organizations.

We’ve sustained these partnerships and expanded them significantly since the famine was declared. That puts us in a unique situation versus other organizations, and that has helped UNICEF to sustain its presence in southern Somalia – and take the approach that it’s about children, no matter where they are.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1880/Deghati
A malnourished Somali child receives ready-to-use therapeutic food at a UNICEF-supported nutrition centre in 2009. Even before the crisis in Somalia escalated, child malnutrition was above emergency thresholds.

UNICEF.org: Can you describe the impact of conflict on children in southern Somalia?

HS: I’ll give you a very, very simple example. Let’s say you’re in Baidoa, or in Mogadishu or Garbahaarreey. UNICEF supports an NGO. We install a water system.

Fighting breaks out, militias come in, they completely destabilize the situation, burn down the water system. We have to start over again. People will go without water – either for days or for weeks, depending on how long that localized conflict lasts – until we’re actually able to send in people who can fix the water system. In very simple terms, that’s what conflict means. You will, at times, not have access to anything at all. When you have a famine situation, hunger, malnutrition, you can just imagine what conflict does. You can’t deliver corn soya blend to the children. You’re stuck on a border, or you’re stuck with the trucks on the way to that town for days, when people needed it yesterday.

UNICEF.org: What specific programmes has UNICEF Somalia put in place to address the crisis?

HS: UNICEF has the standard programmes that we do in most countries. The difference with Somalia is, basically, UNICEF is providing the bulk of that. For example, in the health programme, we are essentially the only provider of all drugs for all MCHs [maternal and child health clinics] and all health posts across the country – and there are 300 or 400 of them. So if the UNICEF drugs stop, then the system stops.

Since the famine was announced we’ve worked to get more MCHs up, more health posts, and tried to increase the outreach. And we continue to do that in the other sectors. We support over 1,000 nutrition centres for treatment of severe acute malnutrition, addressing moderate malnutrition as well, and again, we provide all the supplies that go into that. It’s a huge task.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1182/Holt
Displaced children and women sit by a bullet-riddled wall in the Wardhiglay area of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.

UNICEF.org: How about new kinds of interventions?

HS: Since the famine we’ve introduced two new areas of work that we had not done previously. We’ve introduced a blanket supplementary feeding programme to reach 200,000 households. That’s over a million people. Currently, we reach about 77,000 households. We hope that within the next four weeks or so, we can get to the full 200,000. With the absence of general food aid distribution in southern Somalia, this is a huge and very significant undertaking.

The other intervention is an emergency voucher programme. There, we’re trying to reach 70,000 households with either cash or vouchers that are equivalent to what it costs to purchase a food basket in Somalia. It’s new for UNICEF, but we felt it was the right thing to do in the midst of a famine.

UNICEF.org: What’s the outlook for funding emergency efforts in Somalia for the rest of this year and beyond?

HS: Let me backtrack a bit. In January, when we issued the humanitarian appeal, UNICEF requested $60 million just for the response in all of Somalia. By mid-year, when the famine was announced, we revised that upwards to $230 million. Against that appeal, we were fully funded. Recently we’ve had to increase it again by another $60 million for additional needs. So we still need $60 million for the remainder of this year.

We’re in the process of preparing the appeal for next year for the humanitarian programme, and we anticipate that it will be around the same level, or close to $300 million that UNICEF will need for 2012.



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