Somalia: Time for a Shift in Focus

02/22/2012 09:41 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2012

This Thursday, 23 February, heads of state, Ban Ki-moon and other delegates will meet in London to discuss the security threats posed by Somalia and the future of its Government. My colleague Edward Pomfret looks at what needs to happen at the conference and why listening to concerns of ordinary Somalis is the key.

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Although the causes of the problems Somalia faces lies primarily in the country itself, where warring factions are accused of impeding and diverting aid flows, policies of other countries have also had a major impact. These policies focused more on international security concerns than on the needs, interests and wishes of the Somali people have inadvertently fuelled both the conflict and the humanitarian crisis.

You may remember seeing the pictures as people in Somalia tried to deal with the worst food crisis the country has faced for years. Although the images have left our screens largely, the bare numbers from the crisis reveal starkly what Somalis have faced. Tens of thousands of people have died over the last few months. 2.4 million people are still in need of urgent aid while 325,000 children are still suffering from acute malnutrition.

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Somali women waiting for food to be distributed in Mogadishu. May 2011.

International concern about Somalia is not new: the country has not had a functioning national government for two decades. Somalis have tried various ways to organise the country. But sadly these efforts have been overshadowed by conflict and power struggles in the country, in which the interests of most Somalis have been ignored. Participants at the London conference want to discuss a long list of issues: security, political process, local stability, counter-terrorism, piracy, humanitarian issues, and international coordination.

Unfortunately, in discussing these problems ministers and officials are falling into the same trap that they have for decades - ignoring the voices of the Somali people. Somalia is much more than just terrorism and piracy.

Somalis we speak with tell us they want to go about their daily lives, free from the brutal disruption of war and famine, where they could earn a secure income to afford to feed their families everyday and send their children to school. They're asking the international community to prioritise meeting the basic needs of Somalis immediately, so that they can recover their lives and dignity and build their country back from two decades of conflict. As the international community is already intent on continuing to intervene, they should at least listen to what Somalis' priorities are.

Hadija*, 50, from Galgadud region, for example says they "should help the jobless youth and generate employment and vocational skills training in order to dissuade the youth from joining the criminal activities. We need support to strengthen local and community-owned administrations, and help us to build schools and hospitals. What Somalis need is to bring sustainable peace and security, allowing women and children to live without fear"

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Young boy in one of the displaced camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

In a new report - A shift in focus: putting the interests of Somalis first - Oxfam sets out an agenda for the conference which shifts the emphasis away from security concerns and takes practical steps towards an inclusive political solution to the conflict and crisis.

Firstly the conference must recognise that Somalia is still facing a catastrophic humanitarian emergency with millions people in need of urgent aid. While drought conditions are improving in some parts of the country, renewed fighting continues to force people to flee their homes and farms to neighbouring countries or other parts of the country. The world's attention must not turn away from this humanitarian crisis.

The international community also needs to address the fact that the lines have blurred between humanitarian and military intervention, compromising the independence of aid agencies to deliver vital aid to those who need it most. We need a renewed international drive to allow unrestricted, independent humanitarian access to those who need lifesaving aid and support to rebuild their lives.

A new approach to Somalia is urgently needed. Somali women and men are asking for a greater say in efforts to bring about peace and security in their country. After more than 20 years of outside intervention that has failed to resolve the conflict, the international community must support a peace process that includes Somalis and reflects their needs, interests and wishes.

The world's response to terrorism must not make things worse for Somalis trying to live a normal life. More conflict will not solve conflict.