UN relief official urges aid to Somalia

By WILLIAM M. REILLY  |  Feb. 19, 2002 at 5:11 PM
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UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Declaring the "whole reality of Somalia is different from what it was a few years ago and certainly 10 years ago," a senior U.N. humanitarian aid official on Tuesday called on the international community to support grass-roots efforts to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.

"At the level of communities, the reality of Somalia is very different from the image of what it was a few years ago," said Carolyn McAskie, the deputy emergency relief coordinator, within hours of returning from the Horn of Africa. "The image that a lot of people still have of Somalia is one of warlords and constant fighting, and when they are not fighting, they're starving because of the drought."

Nobody is starving, she said.

"The message that we want to get out is that Somalia is starting to build itself up from the grass-roots," she said, adding that donors should realize "the time is now right for investments in grass-roots development in Somalia that we always talk about when we talk about development investment as peace-building."

There was enough food for most of the year, she said.

However, McAskie warned that the international community's emphasis on political process in Somalia posed "the very serious risk of putting in place a political structure that has nothing to anchor itself in."

Factional leaders were turning into district leaders, she said.

McAskie was "not trying to pretend" that the country had suddenly transformed itself, she told reporters, but called Somalia "a country that is starting to turn the corner. It's a hard sell. People still have a view of Somalia we think is out of date."

She admitted fighting wasn't over, pointing out that only a few days ago U.N. relief staff had to be evacuated from Baidoa. Still, she said, "We are seeing a level of stability we haven't seen for a long time."

During her visit last week, McAskie did not go to the capital of Mogadishu, saying she was limited by time, but that if she were to have gone, she would have needed a considerable amount of security.

The United Nations was preparing to introduce a countrywide curriculum for national primary schools, McAskie said. Some curriculums are borrowed from nearby nations, or are based on study of the Koran. She guessed "perhaps 20 percent" of children already were going to makeshift schools, put together with materials from war-ravaged buildings

"The ideal would be to have the funding to help communities rebuild the schools, hire teachers and introduce the curriculum across the board," she said.

In addition, U.N. agencies were working to open health clinics and conduct immunization campaigns. Since Somalia was turning the corner, she said, "It is possible to do a real investment in the future of a country."

"Yes, the drought is still there, but the stability is (also) there," said McAskie. "The situation is such that we could be making reasonable -- cautious, but reasonable -- investments in the stability of Somalia."

When asked how much has been raised from the donor community, McAskie replied, "None."

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