Local Government Empowerment is the Key to Containing Coronavirus in Somalia

  • April 13, 2020

  • Mogadiscio, Somalia


On March 16, the Federal Government of Somalia confirmed the first COVID-19 case in the country. As of April 10, there are 12 confirmed cases, one death and one recovery.

Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire has appointed a taskforce committee consisting of key line ministries headed by the Ministry of Health. To prevent the spread of the virus, the committee has shut down educational institutions, banned public events and meetings, and advised mosques to limit gatherings. The taskforce earmarked US$5 million to combat the outbreak and embarked on an awareness campaign to ensure the public adopts prevention measures and strengthens personal hygiene.

The government has distributed preventive medical items (facemasks, testing kits, and protective clothing) donated by Chinese philanthropist Jack Ma. New COVID-19 testing equipment recently arrived in Mogadishu with support from the Italian Embassy in Somalia and UN technical and logistical support.

There are a number of challenges in Somalia for managing the COVID-19 threat.

  1. Somalia's limited medical capacity: The country's health infrastructure is severely undermined due to years of on-going conflict and the state's poor economy. Somalia's Ministries of Health suffer from a shortage of equipment, particularly Intensive Care Unit and ventilator capacity, medicines, and qualified health workers.
  2. The spread of misinformation about the pandemic: There is an obstinate narrative among Somalis that COVID-19 is a deception engineered by the political elite to accrue money from donors or that the disease does not kill practising Muslims.
  3. Poverty and shrunk remittance inflow: The majority of Somali households survive on daily wages. Many families rely on remittance from abroad. Until recently two million Somalis living in the diaspora were sending approximately US$1.4 billion each year back home, according to the World Bank. As coronavirus layoffs surge abroad, Somalia may lose vital income.
  4. The ongoing armed conflict in Somalia: The Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab continues operations against state targets while not allowing genuine coronavirus-related information to disseminate in the areas it controls. Muslim clerics in the country are taking active steps to counter Al Shabaab's propaganda.
  5. Somalia's culture of communal living: It is common practice in Somalia that extended family members live together in overcrowded homes. The country has a social culture where gatherings are frequent and visiting sick people is commonplace.

Early responses by central and local governments

Despite the challenges, Somali authorities firmly believe the COVID-19 threat can be managed through leadership and good governance.

Somalia has a history of communicable diseases outbreaks and the government has learned well that deploying community-based volunteers, increasing public health education, and coordinating with local governments are the best and fastest mitigation measures they can put in place.

Taking greater ownership of the response to COVID-19, states and local governments started daily TV and radio broadcasts with updates and health messages. Religious figures, celebrities and opinion leaders also joined communication campaigns on social media. Local governments encourage use of mobile money in all transactions. The Ministry of Health developed COVID-19 Public Health Recommendations in Somali and started distribution among public and private hospitals, different institutions and local governments.

Somali state governments recognize importance of a coordinated public-private partnership for effective prevention. Leading national mobile companies joined the trend of daily broadcast of key messages through SMS. They have also attuned a ring-back tone so that callers can instantly hear public health messages such as “please wash your hands… avoid touching face… keep social distance”.

Defeating COVID-19 will require unleashing the power of local governments. The 2017 cholera outbreak demonstrated that municipalities are vital for combatting disease. For the last five years, UNCDF has been supporting revenue mobilization capacities of districts in Somalia. As some local governments have started collection of significantly larger internal revenues, they initiated preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19 in public areas. Municipalities ordered mass production of simple washstands to be installed in public areas such as markets, mosques, libraries, bus stations, entries to public offices, etc.

UNCDF and the agencies in the UN Joint Programme on Local Governance (JPLG), along with state governments, aim to further boost the municipalities through intergovernmental fiscal transfers specifically for COVID19 protocols, building on the existing local development fund. JPLG is a joint programme of five agencies – UNCDF, UNDP, UNICEF, UNHABITAT and ILO, working together to combine their expertise and resources on one shared goal.

With resources from Denmark, the European Union, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and USAID, UN JPLG will channel COVID-19 emergency response operational expenditure grants through the intergovernmental fiscal transfer system, which is already working in 20 districts in Somalia. To ensure the country is well prepared for an outbreak the Government of Denmark contributed additional 15 million Krona (US$ 2.2 mln.) to the emergency response plan. The resources will be used for the procurement of protective equipment, sanitizing materials, production of water tanks, and construction of temporary isolation wards for those tested positive. This system has been carefully designed to ensure absorption capacity, transparency and effectiveness in deployment. As the intergovernmental fiscal transfers to local governments become a more dominant feature of subnational finance in Somalia, they will demonstrate a rapid and efficient method to help defeat the virus.