7:30 A.M. EST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and good afternoon from Johannesburg, from the Africa Regional Media Hub with the United States Department of State, and good morning to those of you who are joining us from Washington, D.C. I would like to welcome our participants calling from across the continent and also welcome media gathered in the room in our Embassy in Kampala, Uganda.
Today, we're joined by United States Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah, who is speaking to us from Washington, D.C. Dr. Shah has recently returned from a visit to Somalia and will be giving us a readout of his trip. He is the highest-ranking U.S. Government official to visit Somalia in over 20 years.
We will begin with remarks from Administrator Shah and then open it up to your questions. To ask a question, press *1 on your phone to join the queue. Today's call is on the record and will last approximately 30 minutes.
And with that, I'll turn it over to you, Administrator Shah.
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Thank you, and hello. I have had the chance last week to visit Mogadishu and Somalia and had an outstanding visit there, meeting with President Hassan Sheikh, the Prime Minister, many members of the cabinet, and meeting with local governors and the mayor of [ Mogadishu] as well as local civil society leaders and NGO and humanitarian leaders. And I came away from my visit very optimistic about the future of Somalia.
The purpose of my visit was to build on President Hassan Sheikh's visit to the United States, where he had a chance to meet with President Obama. And President Obama reiterated to him the American commitment to support the Somali Government and the Somali people as they hope and work to build a brighter future for themselves and for all of Somalia.
In particular, I had the chance to visit the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya during last year's famine in Somalia, and that was about 18 months ago. Dr. Jill Biden and I were at the Dadaab camp, and we met women who had walked tens, dozens of kilometers from south central Somalia to a refugee camp that offered them safety and food and some basic medicines.
And what we saw there was really tremendous. We saw very resilient Somali people dealing with the worst of circumstances. They often trekked for days through Shabaab-controlled areas. They were often attacked. Their children were not healthy and not getting enough food. And in fact, as we all know, this was a famine where more than 35,000 young children died because of a lack of food, nutrition and safety.
I compare and contrast that to what I experienced on this visit. Today the Somali Government is attempting to build its own capacity and fight corruption, to make sure that public finances are transparent, and that public services are being delivered to their people.
Today, we work in a more optimistic partnership with the people of Somalia, having helped support more than 400 community projects and community-level development activities that range from building fishing industry support structures on the - in some coastal communities to helping individuals and families who have been in displaced persons camps get access to seed and fertilizer and farm implements so they can return to their communities and rebuild their own communities, their own agriculture, and move themselves off of food aid and assistance. And we've worked with the mayor of Mogadishu helping to install dozens of solar-powered street lights, and we heard from him and his local partners about how the Somali people in Mogadishu literally came out to celebrate in the streets the first night the lights went on.
That's a very helpful story. We talked a lot during my visit about the need to make the right decisions and fight corruption and graft, the need to focus on providing services to the people of Somalia and the opportunities we have, as America but also on behalf of the entire international community, to make the transition from humanitarian assistance and aid to self-sufficiency, dignity and hope for the people of Somalia.
So with that, I'm eager to take a few questions. And I very much appreciated the opportunity to visit Mogadishu.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you so much. We are going to - first wanted to remind callers to press *1 if they have a question. We're going to go to journalists who are gathered in the room in Kampala, Uganda, and take a few questions first.
QUESTION: Hello, I am Julius Odeke from Kampala working for The Independent magazine. I have some few questions which I want to put out first.
There are so many Somalis living across the world, and in particular Uganda and Kenya. Do you think this is the right time for them to celebrate for the seemingly peace in their country? And do you advise them to go back to Somalia? That's one question.
When do you think [African Union Mission in Somalia] AMISOM forces should pull out of Somalia? And why, in the particular, is America interested in peace in Somalia?
And then the other question is: How are you going to raise funds to help the disparate communities in Somalia, most especially children who have never gone to school? Thank you.
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, there were a number of questions there. Let me try to address them.
First, the reason America is committed to a partnership with the people of Somalia is because we know it's very much in our interest, and it is consistent with our moral values to support the aspirations of all people, in particular the children that you mention who now will get a chance, we hope, to go to school, to learn, to survive and to thrive. And ultimately, that future and that choice to choose a future of peace and stability and prosperity and self-improvement is, in fact, a choice that is very much in America's national security interests and consistent with our moral values.
On the question of AMISOM, I don't want to get into how long AMISOM should be present, but it's clear to me that - and we are very grateful to the countries that have contributed support and troops for this effort - but the AMISOM presence clearly helps enhance stability and security and lays the groundwork for development. You cannot have development when you have active conflict and personal security threat. So we're very grateful to our partners for supporting that effort.
And then with respect to the other parts of your question, let me just say that I had a chance to announce $20 million of aid and assistance to the Somali people and the Somali Government. But I think it's very important, as we make these investments, to do them in a transparent, results-oriented way so that Somalia can stand up its own capacity to govern itself and not require the kinds of large amounts of humanitarian aid and assistance over time. That transition from dependency to dignity and self-sufficiency is what we have seen and heard from our partners in Somalia. It's what President Hassan Sheikh spoke about to myself and Ambassador Jim Swan, and it's what America is committed to doing with our partnership with the people and Government of Somalia.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Embassy Kampala, your line is still open if you have another question. I would just ask that you ask one question at a time, please, and state your name and affiliation before you ask your question. Go ahead.
QUESTION: My name is Benjamin Jumbe, working with KFM Radio, [Uganda]. One is related, actually, to one question that my colleague earlier asked. I wanted to find out, in your view, how - what extent has the AMISOM force contributed to the stability and development of Somalia? And do you think there is need for other African countries to contribute any more troops?
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, as I said before, we support and are grateful to the partners for making the contributions that substantiate the AMISOM force. I obviously had a chance in Mogadishu to meet with and benefit from the security provided by that force. And while, over time, we all have an aspiration for Somalia to be able to fully secure itself, it's very clear the AMISOM force will be necessary for some time to come. And so we're grateful and appreciate continued support for and contributions of troops to the AMISOM force.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and your line is still open if you have a follow-up question.
QUESTION: Yeah, the other question is I wanted to find out how much more support could be needed to have the new Somali Government up and running and their economy revived.
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: We're very optimistic about the future of Somalia. It has the longest coastline in Africa and the potential for a vibrant and legal fishing economy. It has two natural rivers and a history of significant agricultural production and high- value crop production and activity and, as we've seen in just the last few months, a significant increase in economic activity in Mogadishu, where even during my visit, I've had - I had the chance to run into bankers and other business leaders from the region who are looking at investing in a Somalia that they believe is now open for business.
So we believe there is great opportunity in Somalia and believe that so long as the government continues to emphasize and make the right choices - to fight corruption and graft, to make its public finances extremely transparent, and to focus on providing the kinds of basic services that the people and the economy will need to be effective over time, we think there's a very bright future. And I think I saw some very real, tangible signs of that.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And I believe we have one more question from our Embassy in Kampala, so please go ahead. State your name and affiliation.
QUESTION: Yes. I am Julius [from the Independent] again once more. I wanted to know - Uganda has been in Somalia since 2007. How much money does the U.S. Government contribute to the Somalia's peace, for - actually for running the day-to-day activities in Somalia? I am from The Independent magazine.
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, the United States has been Somalia's largest financial supporter. That said, we very much appreciate the support that has come from regional partners, especially those that are providing security support for the African-led force there.
So we are proud of the significant humanitarian investments that have been made. I believe just last year, U.S. assistance to Somalia totaled $359 million in 2012] that helped bring the famine conditions to an end and helped to support this transition that is now just starting to take hold, from requiring humanitarian aid to having a more self-sustaining economy and agriculture. So we will continue to make investments.
In particular, during my visit, I had a chance to learn about our programs that support the delivery of economic infrastructure and basic services, such as the solar-powered lights in Mogadishu and the efforts to improve the fishing ports and facilities in some of the coastal communities. And we believe that is the next phase of helping Somalia's economy be more viable, durable and independent.
OPERATOR: Thank you. We're going to move on now and take a question from Reuters from Leslie Wroughton.
QUESTION: Yes, good - well, it's good morning here in Washington. I was wondering, you were talking about fighting - sorry, building capacity and fighting corruption. How do you see this moving forward quickly? As you know, the government wants to see - the President has expressed interest in some quick wins to show some peace dividend. I wonder if you can really expand a little bit on how you see that development deepening.
Number two, as you know, Somalia is in arrears to the IMF and the World Bank, and it cannot really engage with it until there's some sort of bridge loan or clearing of those arrears. What is - is the U.S. backing some sort of effort to help that go ahead? And also, debt relief - was there a discussion on debt relief?
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Thank you. These are interrelated questions, of course, because in order for Somalia to be able to benefit from relief of its arrears and debts and for it to be able to join the international economic mechanisms, like the bank and the fund, it will have to make sure that it has strong and independent and transparent public financial management systems.
So I had very a detailed conversation about this with the President, the finance minister, and the United States is, together with the United Kingdom, helping the Somali Government implement an accounting and procurement system that is transparent and open.
We've seen early evidence of success there as they've done contracts for community-based service delivery. They've often used a very open and transparent procurement and bid mechanism. And we actually had our colleagues describe in detail that process and how it allows for an open bid and an open selection process where all of the community leaders can see how different proposals were scored and why the proposal with the highest score was awarded the contract. And they have that data simultaneously presented to them, and that's the kind of transparency in procurement and financial management that the Somali Government will have to build on as it starts to undertake larger-scale efforts.
I'll also add that the United States will work with the World Bank and the fund. In fact, I was at the World Bank yesterday to explore opportunities for Somalia to be more effectively supported by those institutions in the short term. We do believe that now is a unique moment to help the Somali Government.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We're going to move to Channel Africa Radio based in Johannesburg, Jenine Coetzer.
QUESTION: Thank you, Carrie, and good afternoon, Dr. Shah. I know we're only supposed to ask one question at a time, so I'll stick with one, but if there's time, I have another two really to the point and short ones.
My first question: You have mentioned that when you've been to Somalia before, you saw people in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, women that walked from central Somalia and south to Dabaab.
I was in Mogadishu in September 2011 for - on and off for about two weeks, working with an aid organization there. And at the time, again, hundreds, thousands of people walked from the south to Mogadishu, where they put up camps and they came in search of food, et cetera, et cetera.
Have things become better for you on the streets? Are there still all these informal shelters and people that really live without proper water and sanitation? And I'm talking specifically about people coming from the south about a year ago towards Mogadishu.
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, I'm glad you've asked that question, because it is true, in fact, that 18 months ago, there was a huge influx of people to refugee and, as you're mentioning, internally displaced persons, camps and settlements, some exceedingly informal, in and around Mogadishu.
Today we are now working with the Somali - our Somali partners and government to help those in the IDP camps in particular, in, thus, exactly the kinds of situations you're describing in Mogadishu, return to their home communities. And our partnership to support those returns is dependent on the returns being entirely voluntary. In fact, people do want to return to their communities. It's dependent on, of course, the communities being safe and able to - people able to return to where they came from. And as I mentioned earlier, we're working with those communities to help improve access to water, agricultural inputs, like seeds and fertilizers and farm implements, and providing some basic commodities so people can restart their economic activities and livelihoods in the communities they go to.
It's very important that this be done in a voluntary manner, of course, and be sensitive to the very real security concerns that still do exist in some parts of the country. But we are quite optimistic that this could be a model for future returns as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I just wanted to remind callers to press *1 if you have a question. And Jenine, we can - we'll stay with you for now, so go ahead and ask your other question.
QUESTION: (Inaudible), as I said, they're really to the point and short. When you were in Mogadishu now, you said - you explained to our colleague from Uganda that AMISOM - I assume you moved with protection from the east side.
Again, in September 2011, when I was there, we didn't ask AMISOM to look after us, but there were government soldiers or people with seriously big guns that had to escort us wherever we went in Mogadishu. We know - it's being said that al-Shabaab has now been chased mostly out of Mogadishu. We also still hear from time to time about car bombs and these things happening in the capital.
What was your assessment about safety in general on the streets now in 2013? And I'm asking that to find out how easily aid agencies will be able to work now in, for instance, Mogadishu and on the outskirts.
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, let me say two things. The first is I don't want to paint an unrealistically optimistic picture. There's still quite a lot of work to do, and just a few days before I arrived, there was, as you know, a bombing in that area. So there is a lot of work that still has to be done, and the Somali people, government and AMISOM all working together appear focused on continuing to expand and improve on citizen security, given the existing threats.
But I will also say that I did have a chance to meet with many of our program partners and some of the organizations you refer to. And they do describe a much greater capacity to deliver services on the ground, to be out and about. They talk about being able to move about even in the evening and at night, and describe both themselves and these humanitarian and aid agencies but also their partners in the private sector and regular Somali citizens having much greater capacity for movement and economic activity.
So there has been a very significant improvement, and you're seeing that with new structures being built in Mogadishu and with everything from the theater to the streetlights to improved road infrastructure. These are the signs of progress and give us hope. And now is precisely the time for the United States and all of the international partners, including regional ones, and for the private businesses to explore investment opportunities and get in on the ground floor, because there is a lot of opportunity there today.
MODERATOR: Thank you, and thanks, Jenine. We're going to move now to Radio Mogadishu to Mahmoud Dahir Adani.
OPERATOR: Please go ahead. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, Dr. Shah. Hello, hi. Thank you, Dr. Shah, for actually coming to Mogadishu. I had an opportunity to meet with you there, but - and also, actually, [as] for the $20 million. Unfortunately, that's not enough for humanitarian assistance, but a few areas for more - for development projects. Mogadishu, or actually, the whole country needs a lot of institutional building developments, specifically actually, if you look - you mention about the streetlights. That's - those are kind of welcome, actually, developments. But also the roads and the streets really needs a lot of work. And do you have any plans where you will be actually helping a development project, or specifically, institutional-building or capacity-building projects for the government - Somali Government?
ADMINISTRATOR SHAH: Well, thank you. The - one of the prime points of discussion with our Somali partners, both during my visit to Mogadishu and during President Hassan Sheikh's visit to see President Obama, was the need to build capacity in government and in Somali institutions even as we collectively continue to support the basic humanitarian needs that we know do exist.
During the height of the crisis last year, more than 4 million Somali individuals needed critical emergency humanitarian support. We believe that number is now down to  1 million, and we know that we can replace that kind of aid with capacity support for a more self-sustaining approach to development. And that's why we've also transitioned - while I announced the $20 million of aid support, we're also supporting at much higher levels programs to do community development, programs and projects, so that government can have more capacity. We've worked, as I mentioned, very closely with the mayor of Mogadishu and with the overall Somali Government to build capacity and capability in their government to provide services, make financial management transparent, procure services and infrastructure support, and reach out and coordinate and organize other partners that seek to help.
I think this is - it's also important to note that the humanitarian agencies will also be asked to change the way they work, to be more in dialogue with and partnership with a government that today has the legitimacy and recognition and support of an institution that needs to build itself up over time. So we've pursued all of those during our discussions there, and the United States will certainly continue to do its part to help make this transition from humanitarian aid to real development opportunities.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. And that concludes today's call. I would like to thank Administrator Shah for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today's call, you can contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much.
# # #