'Most Dangerous City in World' Showing Hopeful Signs

Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

MOGADISHU, Somalia - The battle-scarred capital of Somalia has long been called the "most dangerous city in the world," but after more than two decades of war and lawlessness, there is evidence it might finally be able to shed that ominous title.

For the first time, the leaders of U.N. humanitarian agencies felt it was relatively safe enough to gather in Mogadishu with journalists and local government leaders for the public launch Tuesday of the annual appeal for donor support. The location was meant to stress the country's fragile progress as they present crisis-weary donors with a bold new funding request to further expand programs beyond emergency life-saving assistance.

"I think a lot of people are optimistic about Somalia's future right now. This is the time to invest and not to walk away. Somalia is not in a situation where we can safely believe that tomorrow is for sure going to be a better day," said Justin Brady, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Somalia.

For operations in 2013, U.N. humanitarian officials in Somalia are asking international donors for $1.3 billion, and for the first time they are asking for a commitment beyond the next budget year. They want donors to commit to a three-year strategy to enable 177 U.N. agencies and partnering groups to reach nearly half of Somalia's population with coordinated programs to build resilience in a country with a history of chronic conflict and recurring droughts.

"We cannot just wait for another crisis, because it will come, and we have to be prepared for that. And nowadays we can be prepared for that," said Stefano Porretti, head of the U.N. World Food Programme Somalia and current U.N. Somalia Humanitarian Coordinator. "I am convinced that we are at a critical time in the history of Somalia."

More than 2 million Somalis are still living in crisis and dependent on humanitarian aid to survive, according to a recent report by the U.N. Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit. That's down from the peak of 4 million during last year's famine, and progress is being on other fronts.

Within just the last few months, regional African forces in Somalia managed to push the Islamist militant group Al Shabab out of all major towns. For years the al Qaeda affiliate implemented a cruel form of strict Sharia law across much of the country and banned aid agencies during last year's devastating famine.

A joint international naval mission to improve security in the waters off the Horn of Africa has nearly put Somalia's 21 st century pirates of business. And the country's corrupt and inept transitional government was replaced by a new parliament, which then peacefully elected a new president.

At the launch of the three-year U.N. funding appeal for Somalia, Ministry of Interior Adulkarim Hussein Guled promised this government will do better.

"We are ready and committed to assist and facilitate the humanitarian organizations to do their work in a better way. We will never accept the humanitarian assistance to go directly in the wrong hands. We need that help to go directly to the needy people," Guled said.

Promises in Somalia have a bitter history of being broken, and there remain many daunting obstacles to a lasting peace and security, including clan rivalries and persistent Al Shabab guerrilla fighters.

U.N. staff and visitors are still required to wear flak jackets and travel in armored convoys in Mogadishu because of continued bombings, but the danger is no longer keeping Somalis from daring to move on with their lives: In Mogadishu, there's a construction boom. Restaurants, government buildings and schools are opening again.

U.N. humanitarian officials in Somalia hope the recent progress will be seen by international donors as encouragement to stay committed to long-term solutions, rather than a signal to withdraw until yet another catastrophe demands a rushed and expensive response.

"If we don't get the funding needed for this, the risk is to be trapped again in the vicious cycle of being obliged to respond to crisis and starting to build something we cannot finish. And then start all over with the next crisis," Porretti said.

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