U.N. officials in the Kenyan capital paid tribute Thursday to humanitarian aid workers in Somalia, describing them as heroes who risk their lives to deliver aid to millions of Somalis affected by both conflict and natural disasters.
The U.N. Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, says while the humanitarian crisis in Somalia remains one of the worst in the world, the ability of aid workers to access people who need assistance is shrinking. He says the situation is particularly worrisome in south-central regions, where Somalia's al-Qaida-linked extremist group al-Shabab has overwhelming control and influence.
"Parts of Somalia are very difficult to get to," said Bowden. "Agencies, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) find it difficult and dangerous to work in parts of Mogadishu, for example. Aid workers have been targeted."
In the past two years, dozens of aid workers - mostly Somali - have been killed or kidnapped by armed insurgent groups. Numerous humanitarian organizations, including the U.N.'s World Food Program, have been forced to shut down or suspend operations because of threats and attacks.
Maulid Warfa, a Somali aid worker working for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, told VOA that even in communities where aid is welcomed, it is not easy to reach needy populations.
"Out of my 18 years of experience in Somalia, I have never had difficulties with the communities as such," said Warfa. "But often, challenges come from warring groups, warlords, freelance militias, and others we call 'gatekeepers,' who want you to come through them before you get to the most needy people."
This year, the U.N.'s office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also had to contend with reduced humanitarian funding for Somalia, due in part to donor concerns over a U.N. report released earlier this year that accused the World Food Program of diverting up to half the aid for Somalia to corrupt contractors, Islamist extremists, and local U.N. workers.
Bowden says U.N. agencies are working to develop and implement new and better ways of providing humanitarian assistance in Somalia.
"We are putting more emphasis on employment generation," said Bowden. "We have also introduced new mechanisms of greater accountability and transparency about how aid is given. I hope that next year, we can address need more effectively than we have done this year, both in terms of improving access and in terms of the financial support we get for humanitarian assistance."
The United Nations says despite challenges, aid workers delivered food to 340,000 people in Mogadishu and nearly two million others throughout Somalia in the first six months of this year.