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Results Briefs January 24, 2020

Cutting-Edge Survey Techniques Power First Poverty Assessment in Somalia in Decades

An innovative series of surveys overcame significant security and implementation obstacles to yield the most comprehensive analysis of the welfare of the Somali people in decades. Complemented by video testimonials from ordinary Somalis, the results provide data that the government and international partners can use to confront the impact of generations of civil war, political fragmentation and extreme drought. The survey methodology is now being applied in other countries.


Somalia, one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, has been racked by decades of civil war and political upheaval. In addition, four consecutive seasons of low rainfall between April 2016 and December 2017 caused severe droughts across the country, exacerbating food insecurity for 6.2 million Somalis, more than a third of the population. More than one million have left their homes fleeing ongoing conflict and violence from armed non-state actors.

But while international aid groups and humanitarian workers knew the scale of need in Somalia was huge, just how huge remained unknown. Since no national census has been undertaken in the country since 1987, data were almost nonexistent on everything from where poverty was worst, to how it manifested, to what Somalis could do to survive unrelenting shocks to their livelihoods, their ability to feed their children, and their personal safety.

To make matters more challenging, the Somali government is carrying massive debt. But in order to seek debt relief through international financing mechanisms, it needed poverty statistics based on reliable data.

“There had been no poverty estimate or population census in Somalia since the 1991 government overthrow,” said Utz Pape, a senior economist in the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Global Practice and team leader of the Somali High Frequency Survey project.

“There was a situation of total data deprivation since the 1980s. And to even seek debt relief, they had to produce a poverty reduction strategy paper. That’s why we went to work there and why we really pushed for it.”


Household surveys, in which researchers ask a detailed series of questions and make observations on a representative sample of all households in a population, are an essential tool for developing strategies to reduce poverty. But in Somalia, World Bank economists had to come up with an entirely new way of implementing such a survey to reap meaningful results.

To overcome the lack of census data, normally used to devise a statistically random survey sampling, World Bank researchers leveraged satellite imagery to partition the entire country into relatively equal population sectors.

To account for large populations of nomads who had never been included in household surveys before, and to include the voices of displaced peoples, surveyors fanned out over areas of the country that had been thought inaccessible.

To address security concerns that made it difficult for surveyors to question families for long periods of time, the team had to find a way to get in and out of each household fast. Typically, surveyors go through a comprehensive list of as many as 600 items in households, collecting information on how much families spend and consume of everything from rice to flour to soap. Completing the painstaking questionnaires can take hours.

In Somalia the team developed a new methodology that allowed them to ask fewer questions of each family but still compile statistically legitimate data in 45 to 60 minutes.

Finally, to bring the voices and faces of the Somali people to life for the government, humanitarian and development partners, media and academics, the World Bank team collected short video testimonials from a broad range of Somalis and published them with the report.

Surveyors started with a pilot project in Mogadishu, the Somalia capital, testing the new methodology and ensuring it would reap credible data. Then they slowly expanded geographic coverage, first in the spring of 2016, and in a second phase from November 2017 to January 2018. The efforts were dubbed the Somali High Frequency Survey (SFHS) and were implemented in close collaboration with the Somali statistical authorities.

“What you realize is that it was a quite risky undertaking and we couldn’t solve it using traditional methods,” Pape said. “Working for the World Bank, we were allowed to innovate, to come up with new methodologies, a new approach.”

 “One of the critical things we need to be able to do is to monitor poverty on a much more frequent basis in Somalia and elsewhere,” said Pape. At the heart of the effort, he continued, was the ability to innovate.

Almost 9 out of 10

Somali households are deprived in at least one dimension: monetary, electricity, education, or water and sanitation.


The results were compiled, analyzed, and used to create two comprehensive profiles of poverty in Somalia. The Somali Poverty Profile, published in 2017, and the Somali Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment, released August 2019, find that poverty in the country is widespread and deep, particularly in the countryside and among the displaced. Among the findings:

  • Almost 9 of 10 Somali households are deprived in at least one dimension: monetary, electricity, education, or water and sanitation. Nearly 7 of 10 households suffer in two or more dimensions. Nomadic populations suffer the most, while urban dwellers experience the least deprivation. 
  • Just half of households have access to improved sanitation and electricity, and 8 of 10 to improved water sources. Only 5 of 10 households have electricity. 
  • About 66 percent of Somali households report experiencing at least one type of shock in the past 12 months, mostly related to weather. 
  • A significant portion of the population — about 10 percent — live just above the poverty line and are vulnerable to falling into poverty. 
  • Children younger than 14 represent nearly half of Somalis, and 73 percent of them are poor. Most live more than a 30-minute walk from the nearest school, and most start school late in their lives. Parents ask younger children to work or help at home. Indeed, only 33 percent of children in Somalia attend school, mostly in urban areas. 
  • A surge of internally displaced persons (IDPs) have nowhere to go and have settled on public and private lands in and around cities. Many are vulnerable to eviction. More than 109,000 IDPs living in informal settlements across the country were forcibly evicted between January and August 2017 alone, 77 percent around Mogadishu.

“This is really the first poverty assessment for Somalia, and that is something about which we can be proud,” Wendy Karamba, Economist for Somalia in the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Global Practice and co-team leader of the poverty assessment, said. “Being able to produce such a rich set of information that highlights some of the challenges that Somalis experience enables us to give voice to those who can often be invisible and voiceless. It also brings their issues to the forefront of policy. This is critical for the HIPC process.”

Poverty reduction is the overarching objective of the Federal Government of Somalia’s ninth Somalia National Development Plan (NDP-9), which is particularly meaningful for the debt-relief process through the HIPC initiative. In addition to being informed by national and subnational consultations undertaken by the Federal Government of Somalia, the poverty analysis in the NDP-9 for the period 2020-2024 was also informed by data and quantitative analysis from Wave 2 of the Somali High Frequency Survey and the Somali Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment respectively.


The surveys were funded by the Bank’s Somalia Knowledge for Results Trust Fund of the Multi-Partner Fund, with additional contributions from the Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice to over-sample coastal areas and from the Somalia Country Management Unit to over-sample IDP host communities. Countries contributing to the Multi-Partner Fund include the European Union, Germany, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland, USAID, and Italy. 


The World Bank compiled the surveys with the assistance of the Directorate of National Statistics, Ministry of Planning, Investment and Economic Development of the Federal Government of Somalia.


The Somali Poverty and Vulnerability Assessment is designed to contribute to a better understanding of poverty, livelihoods, and vulnerabilities in Somalia, key to putting the country on a sustainable development path and helping the government apply for international assistance.

The rapid survey methodology developed during the effort is being made available to researchers around the world who collect household information in risky areas. The journey that led to its development will be part of a book chapter and is being submitted to peer-reviewed journals.  

Down the road, more household surveys are planned. World Bank economists are also working with the Somali government to help them produce data for comprehensive estimates of GDP, building not just on expenditure-based estimates, but also production-based estimates.

“The World Bank is committed to its continued collaboration with the Somali statistical authorities to further strengthen the statistical infrastructure and system to produce statistical information needed for evidence-based policy,” said Karamba.


“We passed through a long drought. Despite some, there isn't much rain here, our water storage is empty,” said one of the internally displaced people. “I am the breadwinner of the family, we survived by selling one of the remaining goats. One goat can cost $30 but we have not sold any for two years now.”