For the people of Somalia, peace has been a long time coming. After more than 27 years of civil war, political instability and chronic hunger, there are finally reasons to be optimistic about the country’s future. But the long wait for peace and security is not yet over, and this is no time for complacency.
Earlier this week, world leaders gathered in London for a conference on Somalia against the backdrop of a severe and growing crisis. Prolonged drought and a cholera epidemic have created a situation described by the UN as one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the Second World War.
Almost three million Somalis, including 363,000 malnourished children, don’t have enough to eat from day to day, while as many as 1.9 million risk dying from preventable diseases due to a lack of primary healthcare services, the UN has warned.
International conferences can play an important role in helping to draw the world’s attention to crises such as these. But the people of Somalia need much more than a few warm words from Theresa May. Sustained commitment and focus will be crucial in the months and years ahead for the lofty goals of the London conference to be realised.
So what needs to happen next?
First, we need to recognise that there can be no development without security.
In spite of significant progress in the fight against al-Shabaab, the terrorist group continues to pose a major threat.
It is also helping to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis – almost a third of the Somalis most in need of aid are currently in areas under al-Shabaab’s control, with extremely limited humanitarian access as a result.
In the long term security will depend on the presence of strong and capable Somali armed forces, backed up by transparent and accountable governance capable of delivering the services people need. The work of helping to build these institutions is ongoing, and we must do everything we can to support this process.
For the UK, there is also a need to ensure that when we leave the EU our support for Somalia’s future remains as strong as it is today.
The connection may not be obvious. But the fact is that the EU is one of the world’s largest donors of humanitarian assistance to Somalia, and it is EU funding that has helped sustain the African Union mission there. The EU literally pays the salaries of the soldiers fighting al-Shabaab.
As a member of both the UN Security Council and the EU, the UK has been able to play a leading role in co-ordinating international assistance for Somalia. So as we prepare to leave the EU, we need to think carefully about how best to maintain British leadership on Somalia as an undiminished force in years to come.
The support the Prime Minister expressed for Somalia this week is obviously welcome. But her failure to even acknowledge the potential challenges of Brexit, much less come up with a plan for tackling them, was a deeply disappointing omission.
A few months ago the former UN Special Envoy for Somalia, British diplomat Nicholas Kay warned that: ‘If by the time the conference in May happens we are having to sound the alarm and discuss the famine issue, that is going to be too late.’
Today, the threat of another famine in Somalia is ringing alarm bells. But it is not yet too late. Helping make sure that Somalia keeps moving forward on what Nicholas Kay described as the country’s ‘bumpy and difficult’ road towards peace and prosperity requires long-term commitment from the international community.
Strong British leadership will be as essential in future as it was in helping secure the commitments made in London yesterday. Our ultimate test will be in ensuring that these ambitious promises are fulfilled. There is little time to waste.
Liz McInnes is Labour’s spokesperson for Africa.