Return or Stay Out?

 

By the time he got off the phone with Derow, Bowden realized that time was running out for the “return quickly” option. If he was going to send Hotz and Petit back, it would have to be immediately—perhaps as early as Sunday.

As Humanitarian Coordinator, Bowden’s duty was to uphold the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence of operation. Humanitarian organizations by their nature wanted to be on the ground, in the midst of any disaster that required their assistance. Remote management—trying to coordinate relief efforts from Nairobi—simply invited even more diversion of aid. As OCHA Protection Officer Buahene notes:

If you leave everything to national staff and national NGOs only, or even international NGOs… you get a very distorted or potentially distorted picture of what are the needs on the ground and what are the gaps on the ground. And so, you get a lot of corruption.

OCHA’s chief mission was to rationalize aid delivery across humanitarian agencies. It had only recently been able to return to Baidoa and reestablish strong local ties. If its international staff remained out now, who knew how long it might be until they could return. Other OCHA staff also offered Bowden their perspective. Buahene, for example, felt the price of staying out was too high. He says:

At the end of the day, you lose not only contact with the people you want to help. More importantly, you lose contact with the very people who are in authority… Ultimately how do you negotiate humanitarian access if you can’t actually talk to the person?

But as Resident Coordinator, and especially as the Designated Official, Bowden had to be sure of the security arrangements before taking such a step. Clearly the forces in charge in Baidoa had changed. But OCHA should be able to negotiate with the new group, as it had with the former one. From a security standpoint, a return was possible, at least theoretically. But was it feasible? Was it even desirable? As Bowden puts it: “Apart from thinking about the immediate safety of staff, you know, the second thoughts are about what room have you got for negotiation?”

Bowden decided to ask his staff to prepare a letter to the new governor and Derow. But what should he ask them to write? Should he use forceful language, as Ould-Abdallah seemed to suggest? Should he ask for guarantees—and if so, whose guarantees could he trust? What about the new registration requirement? If it meant payments to al-Shabaab, as was apparently the case, could that be construed as aiding a terrorist organization?