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SPEECH: Kevin Watkins at the London Somalia Conference

Let me start by thanking our co-hosts for convening this important event.

President Farmajo deserves enormous credit for his role in leading the national response to the crisis. Along with other agencies we have greatly appreciated his spirit of openness, dialogue and collaboration.

The UN Secretary General’s first field visit after his appointment was to Baidoa. That visit created a renewed sense of urgency in the international community.

Mr Guterres pointed out at the time that there was still a chance to avoid the worst in Somalia. That chance remains. But as Stephen O’Brien and Peter de Clercq have eloquently described, the window of opportunity is closing.

I also want to thank the Secretary of State, Priti Patel, and her staff at the Department for International Development, for their leadership.

The Secretary of State has played a pivotal role in galvanising and coordinating the international response to Somalia’s crisis. And as the largest humanitarian donor, along with the United States, UK aid is saving lives and enabling some of the world’s most vulnerable people to build for the future.

It is difficult to think of a more compelling illustration of why the Prime Minister’s decision to include the 0.7 per cent of GNI aid commitment in her party’s manifesto is so important.

As the UK public’s overwhelming response to the recent Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Somalia and other countries demonstrated, compassion, empathy and concern for others are integral parts of our national DNA – and the aid commitment is a powerful expression of those values.

Today’s conference is not just about seizing the opportunity to prevent the worst.

It is also about building the pathway to peace, stability and prosperity through a new international partnership – and it is vital that we build the bridge from humanitarian action aimed at saving lives to long-term cooperation on building resilience.

The picture painted in OCHA’s Humanitarian Response Plan revision is consistent with the reports from our country offices and colleagues in the field.

By way of background, Save the Children is operating across 16 of Somalia’s 18 regions, working closely with line ministries and the new Department of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. Our programmes provide vital services in areas such as health and nutrition, clean water and sanitation, and education, as well as cash transfers for vulnerable communities.

As the crisis has intensified, we have scaled up. Back in January we were reaching 30,000 people. That figure now exceeds 1 million. But we recognise that more needs to be done – and it needs to be done now.

Our recent nutrition assessment in six districts reported sharp increases in acute and severe child malnutrition. Levels were ‘critical’ or ‘very critical’ in all but one case. Data from our mobile centres points to a dramatic increase in the proportion of screened children with malnutrition, with the share rising from 11 per cent in February to 26 per cent in March.

We can debate if or when Somalia might be declared a ‘famine country’.

But let’s not allow that debate to obscure what is at stake.

Over 3 million Somalis are unable to meet their daily food needs. Less than half are being reached. Children are on the front line. Over 1.4 million need nutritional support.

As we hold this meeting, 265,000 are living with life-threatening severe malnutrition. Ultimately, their survival and recovery will be the measure of our success – or our future.

Children have also been at the forefront of the cholera and acute watery diarrhea epidemics. They account for 60 per cent of the almost 700 victims to date. Almost all of these deaths could – and should – have been prevented.

The headline numbers in the OCHA report capture the potential scale of human costs. It leaves no room for doubt that we are confronting a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation. For many tens of thousands of people the effectiveness of the humanitarian response is – quite literally – a matter of life and death.

Headline numbers can sometimes deflect attention from the human tragedies that are being played out across Somalia.

Last month I had an opportunity to visit Save the Children’s programmes in Puntland. At one of our emergency health clinics in a town called Shada, I met a two-year-old boy called Abdul. He was suffering from severe malnutrition, with diarrhea and pneumonia as complicating factors. Our staff thought he was unlikely to survive, but he pulled through – just.

I also met a little girl called Hamdi. Aged six months, she arrived weighing just 8lbs – the average birthweight of a baby here in the UK. She was brought to our stabilization clinic in Garowe by her mother, herself severely malnourished, after a three-day journey. Tragically, Hamdi lost her struggle for life. She died from a gastro-intestinal infection, made fatal by malnutrition. Had help been at hand, she would have pulled through.

The difference between a decisive humanitarian effort and a delayed, under-funded and weakly coordinated response is the difference between how these two stories ended. It is the difference between

The significant scale up in support over the past few months demonstrates what is possible. And I would urge all donors to step up to the plate now and support the Plan, including those that are currently conspicuous by their limited presence.

Beyond supporting the level of financial ambition outlined in the OCHA plan, I would also urge humanitarian actors to attach more weight to response planning in five areas:

  • Timing: Approximately 2,510,000 people will be in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and 700,000 will be in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) between now and the end of June – and the likelihood thatGu production will be well below average means food security outcomes are only expected to improve modestly in July and August. It is therefore critical that the humanitarian response effort is front-loaded – and that donors specify clear schedules for delivery. The financing gap for the remainder of the year is $837m – and probably around $200m is needed by the end of June.
  • Displacement: Over 685,000 people have been displaced since last November – and this figure could rise to 1 million. Almost half of the displaced population has moved to Mogadishu and Baidoa, where there is a desperate need for health, nutritional support, water and shelter.
  • Coordinated targeting: It is imperative that donors and NGOs coordinate to ensure that financial commitments can be translated into real delivery. This will require greater clarity over who is able to access which parts of the country.
  • Using cash-options: Save the Children strongly endorses OCHA’s endorsement of cash-based interventions. While recognising that vouchers may be an appropriate response in some cases, putting cash in the hands of people offers potential efficiency gains.
  • Water: Our field staff and many others consistently highlight the deadly role of water shortages. As the OCHA report notes, another 1.2 million people have to be reached – and the required funding is $81m above current levels. Failure to close that funding gap will leave desperately poor communities paying for trucked water they cannot afford, and it will create the conditions for continued epidemics.

We also have to be aware that renewed or intensified military operations may well lead to further displacement, more suffering, and a deteriorating environment for humanitarian delivery. These considerations will, I hope, weigh heavily in the considerations of all armed parties.

Finally, I want to touch on what we at Save the Children see as a critical concern for Somalia’s future.

We are today, quite properly, focusing on immediate humanitarian needs. But this should not deflect us from the task of building the resilience, infrastructure and capabilities that Somalia’s people need to escape the repeat cycle of drought, hunger and deeper poverty.

The current drought has greatly magnified the scale of the challenges to be addressed. Across much of the country, pastoralists have seen their herds decimated: losses in excess of 70 per cent have been reported in many areas. Farmers have seen successive harvests diminished.

In both cases, the drought effects translate into losses of capital and cash for communities already experiencing some of the world’s highest levels of poverty. In a country lacking effective health, nutrition and social protection systems and an economic infrastructure equipped to support inclusive economic recovery, drought traps vulnerable people in cycles of poverty and undermines prospects for growth.

Add to this the legacy of conflict and several decades of poor governance, and you have a ready-made case for pessimism.

The fact is, however, that Somalia’s extraordinarily resilient people cannot afford pessimism or a lack of ambition. That is why the central aim of this conference – building a prosperous and peaceful future – is so critical.

As the largest source of development finance for low income countries, the World Bank has a critical role to play.

I want to acknowledge the leadership provided by the Bank’s President, Jim Kim, not just in allocating IDA resources to Somalia as part of the food emergency response, but also in pressing for those resources to be front-loaded. My understanding is that 60 per cent of the proposed $50 grant allocated to Somalia will be disbursed by the end of June.

I very much hope that the Bank’s shareholders will endorse the case for front-loading.

Looking ahead, it is critical that Somalia has proper access to the IDA 18 resource envelope, including the Crisis Window. This, in turn, would make it possible to crowd in additional donor resources.

Unfortunately, Somalia’s $5bn debt and associated non-accrual status with the World Bank and IMF represents a potential barrier to IDA resources and other aid flows.

This is fundamentally wrong. Much of Somalia’s debt was accumulated during Siad Barre’s time. Over 90 per cent of the debt comprises arrears. Let’s be honest, Somalia’s will never be repaid – and the country’s creditors will long ago have made provisions against non-payment. Had the country been eligible, the debt would have been written off under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative.

Debt reduction is not a magic bullet. But it would help secure Somalia’s standing as a development partner, strengthen public finance reforms, and create the conditions for private investment. Somalia’s government is making real strides on economic reform through programmes agreed with the International Monetary Fund. It would be a folly of the first order to allow the country’s debt to hamper access to the predictable financing needed to underpin progress.

Of course, the issues raised by debt reduction are complex – and the diversity of Somalia’s creditors may add to that complexity.

But if there is one thing we should all be able to agree upon, it is surely that Somalia’s children should not be left to carry burden of a debt built on extravagantly unsustainable borrowing and reckless lending by creditors.

Thank you.

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