Q&A with Abdikadir Mohamed


January 22, 2008

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Abdikadir Mohamed has served as Mercy Corps' top representative in Somalia since June 2006. The 33-year-old Kenya native is an ethnic Somali who's worked in the country before, as a researcher for a health nonprofit in 2003 and 2004.

Mohamed has a master's degree in public health and epidemiology. His previous experience includes jobs for Kenya's Ministry of Health and for Mercy Corps, organizing health and sanitation programs in Sudan's troubled Darfur region. He is fluent in Swahili and Somali as well as English.

Mohamed sat down for an interview with Marketing and Communications Director Jeremy Barnicle during his recent visit to Somalia.

Jeremy Barnicle: Somalia is known as the quintessential "failed state." A semi-functioning government. No coherent military force. Limited control of its borders. What does Mercy Corps hope to accomplish there?

Abdikadir Mohamed: The conditions you mention present a big challenge to any organization, and have created a huge gap between basic needs of communities — in particular those affected by insecurity — and the absence of a strong central government that can reliably provide essential services.

It's also the case that communities don't have a safety net when they're affected by either natural or man-made disasters. This makes them even more vulnerable.

Humanitarian access remains critical. There are an estimated 2.1 million Somalis in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection. The effect of war, floods, drought, sporadic governance, and roaming militias all have compounded the already fragile situation.

What we want to do is help communities restore some of the livelihoods they've lost due to war, which would provide a chance to lead a dignified life. We also want to be part of the peace initiative in Somalia, particularly in Puntland, where we're training people how to mitigate conflict. We'd like to expand that to other part of Somalia.

What are some of Mercy Corps' specific achievements?

We've helped resolve a long-standing conflict in Puntland between two major clans. Through our conflict-mitigation program, we've also helped the communities in the Kaarkar district of Puntland to ban charcoal making to curb environmental degradation, and distributed seedlings for tree planting.

We've also been the first international relief and development agency to assist the Somali Bantus in the area west of the Juba River.

And in Bender Beyla, a coastal community hit hard by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, we helped restart fishing livelihoods by providing tools and equipment such as boats and gear, and by paying locals to help construct 40 kilometers of washed-out road that they needed to sell their fish.

How do see the prospects for peace and progress in Somalia?

This is a tough question. Optimistically speaking, the prospects for peace in Somalia are good, especially in Puntland and Somaliland. Puntland has enjoyed relative peace compared to the southern part of the country. We've seen progress firsthand through our conflict-mitigation program — several peace committees were formed and this opened forums for dialogue between different communities.

For a lasting peace to take hold, all stakeholders in Somalia need to embrace an all-inclusive approach. We will continue to work toward that goal.

The Horn of Africa is a turbulent, complicated, and important part of the world. The issues all seem to cross national borders. How does Somalia fit into a broader regional strategy for Mercy Corps?

Somalia borders three other countries — Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti — all of which are home to Somali people. I envision Mercy Corps working with border communities to help people on both sides mitigate conflict and live together peacefully. You'll find many instances in which two families with very close ties are living on opposite sides of the border. And pastoralist communities of Somalia have long migratory routes that also cross borders. So regional integration of our activities is the way forward, to help develop the communities in Somalia integrate economically with communities across borders.

You have worked in emergencies all over Africa. Does the fact that you're an ethnic Somali make this experience any different?

Absolutely. I think it gives me an advantage, because I have an intimate understanding of the landscape. With my knowledge of the community's culture and traditional systems, I think I'm able to get things done that would be difficult for an outsider. One is recognizing the politics within a clan, and knowing the roles of certain people in Somali society. This is essentially for culturally and politically appropriate relations between international actors like Mercy Corps and the communities we're trying to assist.

What's the most interesting thing about Somalia that people need to know?

I think that it's the determination of ordinary Somalis to have peace and stability, and their incredible resilience to all the crises they have been and are still going through. Their suffering has been immense.

I'd also say that it is how Somalis live and do a thriving business in places where you and I would not think to stay for an hour, let alone invest in. For Somalis there is always a bright side, and always a way. For instance, Internet access and mobile phones — these you can get in the most remote areas, but hardly at all in neighboring countries. It's an entrepreneurial culture that knows a thing or two about survival.