Delivering humanitarian aid in Somalia: Islamic identity doesn’t automatically unlock access to areas controlled by Al-Shabaab – new report

26 February 2015

Press release | Embargoed until 26 February, 00:01

Delivering humanitarian aid in Somalia: Islamic identity doesn’t automatically unlock access to areas controlled by Al-Shabaab – new report

Being a Muslim humanitarian organisation doesn’t instantly open doors when trying to provide aid in conflict zones controlled by Islamic extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, finds leading UK think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in a report launched today.

The report debunks the commonly-held belief that Islamic extremist groups automatically grant access to Muslim humanitarian organisations, and reveals how Islamic and Somali NGOs coordinated by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) gained access into Al-Shabaab held territory during the 2011 famine because they had the necessary existing local networks, rather than due to their Islamic identity or the links with the OIC.

According to the report co-author and ODI researcher from the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), Eva Svoboda, “Islamic identity is no silver bullet to negotiating access to people in need with groups such as Al-Shabaab. It can help, but it’s far too simplistic to assume it’s a catch-all.”

“Debunking this simplistic view is important as many of today’s conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq have become contested sites controlled by extremist groups professing Islamic faith, and negotiating with armed groups to gain access to people who are in desperate need of humanitarian aid is a constant challenge for all aid agencies,” added Ms. Svoboda.

While the OIC has a strong reputation in Somalia and history of delivering aid worldwide for over 20 years, the regional organisation did not negotiate for access and instead focused its efforts on quickly marshalling funds from its member states. Despite the challenges of operating in Somalia, the OIC was able to distribute 25,000 tonnes of food – enough to feed around 25,000-25,000 people over six months. They helped coordinate many Islamic and Somali NGOs and food was delivered to those in need rapidly.


“With an increasing number of regional crises, such as the rise of IS and the Ebola outbreak, regional organisations are becoming some of the most important players in humanitarian responses as global humanitarian organisations such as the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), find themselves stretched to the breaking point” said Steven A Zyck, report co-author and ODI researcher.

The launch of this report ‘Islamic humanitarianism: The evolving role of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation in Somalia and beyond’ marks the conclusion of a meeting of leading regional organisations including the OIC, the African Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the International Humanitarian City in Dubai from 24 to 26 February. Hosted by the ODI, these regional humanitarian organisations discussed how to better respond to humanitarian crises.

The Somalia famine occurred in 2011, and 260,000 people died as the crisis escalated from a drought to a famine due to a massive shortage in humanitarian supplies being able to reach those in affected-regions.


The OIC is made up of 57 Muslim-majority member states.

Islamic humanitarianism: The evolving role of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation in Somalia and beyond’ is co-authored by the Overseas Development Institute and Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS), based in Somalia.


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For more information, a copy of the report, or to interview Steven A Zyck, please contact Tania Cheung at 020 7922 0348 or [email protected].