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As global famine aid comes up short, Somalis abroad step up

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Long before major international pleas for anti-drought funding in Somalia began, or images of the gaunt and hungry started to circulate in the world’s newspapers, Amir Sheikh knew exactly what was happening. For months, the news had been coming to him by Facebook and WhatsApp, by email and over scratchy phone lines from Mogadishu: the country was parched, people were dying. And if money didn’t arrive – lots of it, and soon – things were going to get worse very quickly.

So Mr. Sheikh, who heads up the Somali Community Board of South Africa, did what he always does when he receives news like this from home. He sounded the alarm.

He sent volunteers to talk to business owners in “Little Mogadishu,” a street in Johannesburg’s Mayfair neighborhood crowded with Somali coffee shops and internet cafes, and gathered money collected by small groups of concerned Somali women. He began asking restaurants about hosting fundraisers and reached out to other migrant communities in the city for help.

“It is not hard for us to reach people in Somalia because it is where we come from,” he says. “We are locals, we are not afraid.”

In February, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and warned that three more nearby countries in the midst of their own severe droughts – Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen – were precariously close. To stop them from tipping over into catastrophe, the agency’s humanitarian chief said, it needed to raise $4.4 billion by July. Meanwhile, the US, which supports almost one-fourth of the UN’s funding, is reportedly seeking deep program cuts.

“There are people [in need] who we are not assisting because of funding in every country we work in,” says Challiss McDonough, the senior regional communications officer for the United Nations World Food Programme in East Africa. In Somalia alone, she estimates, the agency needs $209 million more than it currently has in its coffers in order to reach the 6.2 million people at risk of famine.

But in a world worn down by what UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien recently called “the largest humanitarian crisis” since the second World War, there is one group that has never stopped giving – Somalia’s diaspora.

A country of 10.8 million people, cut apart by nearly three decades of civil war, Somalia has one of the world’s most scattered populations: at least 2 million people born in the country now living beyond its borders, to say nothing of their children and grandchildren. But beyond its size, the vast constellation of Somali communities spread from Minneapolis to London to Johannesburg stands out for another characteristic: generosity.

Every year, Somalis abroad send about $1.4 billion home – or a quarter of the country’s GDP – making them Somalia’s largest provider of aid. Somali-Americans send an average of $3,800 per year, for example, while Somalis in Germany send more than $4,000 and those in Saudi Arabia send about $1,500.

And that money travels through highly intimate channels, almost always moving directly from donor to recipient with few or no people in between.

“People know exactly what happens to the money they send because they can just call up their relatives in the village and ask what’s happening and where it’s gone,” says Ayan Ashur, the ambassador to Britain for Somaliland, a self-governing breakaway state that is recognized internationally as an autonomous region in Somalia’s north. “It’s a more accountable way to donate because it’s so personal.”

That also means that in times of crisis like the current drought, Somalis are among the country’s most efficient and effective sources of relief, able to identify need, move money, and analyze impact faster than almost anyone else.

During Somalia’s 2011 famine, for instance, personal social networks – including diaspora connections and remittances – became a crucial factor in how well people and communities coped with the disaster, as international aid groups struggled to respond, according to a report from Tufts University’s Feinstein International Center. The better connected you were to people who weren’t experiencing the same crisis, in short, the more likely you were to survive it.

But that also meant that the diaspora, like other aid groups, was at times unable to reach those who need help the most – the marginalized and poorly connected, as well those living in areas controlled by the Islamist militant group Al Shabaab. More than 250,000 Somalis died during the 2011 famine, the worst of the 21st century; half of them were children. And Somalis’ ability to send money home has become increasingly uneven over the past few years, with several banks across the US, Europe, and Australia refusing to make the transfers into the country for fears of being penalized for inadvertently supporting terrorism or money laundering.

Still, for many in the region, waiting for other forms of aid is hardly an option. The United Nations has blamed slow international response, in part, for the 2011 tragedy, and is anxious not to see history repeat itself. Today, 20 million people are living in drought-hit areas of Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria, according to the UN, which warned last month that it had raised just one-tenth of the funds required to prevent famine.

“Internationally, it took so long and there is still so little” in the way of aid in Somaliland, Ms. Ashur says. “The diaspora has been reacting since November, where we only saw the international community begin to come in around March. I think it’s fair to say this situation would be so much worse if this diaspora had not been active.”

For Brooklyn-based fashion designers Idyl and Ayaan Mohallim and a group of their Somali-American friends, seeing the news from home was like hearing the echoes of history.

“This cycle of famines and droughts has been going on for our entire lives,” Idyl Mohallim says. “We already know too well what the consequences are if help doesn’t get to Somalia sooner rather than later.”

So in early March, she and her friends cobbled together a short video explaining the need for aid in the country, and threw it onto a hastily-assembled GoFundMe fundraising page. They circulated it among friends and family, and by early April, they had raised more than $25,000.

Part of the reason for the fundraiser’s brisk success, Ms. Mohallim speculates, was the fact that the organizers could vouch personally for the charities they had decided to donate their funds to – groups they had worked and traveled with in the past, and whose work they knew well.

“I think people want to be involved but just have no idea how, or feel there’s no way they can change a crisis like that,” she says. “We are giving people both a way to take part and that accountability that the money is going where it needs to be.”

But like Sheikh in Johannesburg and Ashur in London, the organizers don’t feel the work they’ve done is anything newsworthy.

For Somalis, after all, this kind of charity is the norm. In their community, they say, not giving what you can, whenever you can, would be the glaring exception.

“Culturally, this is all very ordinary to us,” Mohallim says.

CS Monitor

Briefing Room

Somali government introduces 5% sales tax to boost revenues

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The Somali government has launched an aggressive tax collection campaign. The administration has imposed a five percent sales tax as part of efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief. However there are concerns on whether the country’s powerful businessmen pay up.

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Hunted and hated, Somali tax collectors gird for battle

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MOGADISHU, Feb 16 (Reuters) – Ahmed Nur moves through the Somali capital of Mogadishu with a bodyguard of six men, a pistol in the waistband of his baggy trousers. He speaks of his work in whispers; seven of his colleagues have been killed in the last three years. But Nur is no intelligence operative. He’s a tax collector.

Now the central government’s imposition of a five percent sales tax last month, part of its efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief, have put him at the heart of a showdown with the country’s most powerful businessmen.

So far, the government’s efforts have been slowly working; domestic revenue was up to $141 million in 2017 from $110 million in 2016, said Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh.

But much more is needed before the government is self-sufficient, a key step toward accessing about $4.6 billion in international debt relief. The final amount is still being assessed.

Somalia has been wracked by civil war since 1991, and the cash-starved, U.N.-backed government in Mogadishu is desperate to claw in the revenue it needs to pay staff and provide services like security.

The military, which is supposed to fight al-Qaeda linked insurgents, is in tatters and a combination of corruption and cash shortages mean soldiers rarely receive their $100 per month paycheques.

“People ask for security services prior to paying tax. But the government cannot deliver the required services to the public unless tax is collected,” Nur confided to Reuters in a restaurant, glancing over his shoulder. “It is like the egg and chicken puzzle.”

Some progress was made last year: tax agreements have been reached with airlines and telecoms companies, and an income tax exemption for parliamentarians has been reversed.

“These are important measures and show the strong commitment of the authorities to reform,” said Mohamad Elhage, who leads the International Momentary Fund’s Somalia work.

Debt forgiveness would give the government access to credit that could be used to fund services, binding Somalia’s often quarrelling federal states closer together.

It could also wean the government off cash from donors such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which often have diverging agendas that can destabilise Somalia’s fragile politics.

“Increasing our revenue is a very important benchmark for the road map to clear the (debt) arrears,” said Beileh. “Our objective to cover our expenses is very important.”

Achieving that will depend, in part, on men like Nur.
TAX COLLECTION ON THE FRONTLINE

Somalia’s al Shabaab rebels are known for their ruthless efficiency at collecting tax and spy networks that track profits. Businessmen misstating their profits are likely to get a terse reminder to pay the difference or face a bullet; tax collectors who cheat the movement could be executed, a former al Shabaab enforcer told Reuters.

Al Shabaab were not available for comment.

As an agent of the U.N.-backed government, Nur cannot dole out amputations or executions. If a businessman refuses to pay up he can theoretically be arrested, if he has no powerful friends to protect him. But often, they will simply prevaricate, said Nur.

That’s what many businessmen are doing in the face of Somalia’s new tax. Mogadishu port has not unloaded a commercial vessel for nine days, port authorities told Reuters on Wednesday, as businessmen refuse to pay the new levy.

Trader Aden Abdullahi complained that he was already paying for port services and customs, and paying the Islamic tax of zakat to the poor. He can’t afford another five percent, he said.

“We see this idea as intentionally or unintentionally direct economic war on Mogadishu traders,” he said, shaking his head in disapproval in his wholesale grocery shop.

“The other problem is that the rebels tax us and I am sure they will also raise tax if the government raises tax.”

Some Somalis also say they are reluctant to pay up to an administration that many consider corrupt and inefficient. Almost all of Somalia’s budget goes on paying its politicians and civil servants; ordinary citizens see little being spent on improving public health, education or infrastructure in their bullet-scarred city.

“We pay various taxes by force. There is no beneficial return from the government. We do not even have roads and I have been paying these taxes at gunpoint for the last ten years,” 40-year-old minibus driver Hashi Abdulle said, referring to money extorted at government-controlled roadblocks.

But Minister Beileh says that criticism is outdated and citizens are confusing private extortion with public taxes. The government is putting reforms in place, he said, like trying to work out how to issue individual tax numbers and empowering the ministry of finance to take the lead on tax collection.

“People are used to dealing with … individuals, individual offices, individual soldiers, illegal tax collectors who did not belong to government,” he said.

“Changing that culture is also becoming a challenge … We are trying to close all the loopholes.”

(Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Giles Elgood)

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Somalia Foreign Minister Wants IGAD Open Borders After The Government Rejected

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Looks like Somali Foreign Minister didn’t get the memo when he was talking to Africa 24 TV.

Minister Ahmed Awad agrees with IGAD Free Movement Proposal “We’re comfortable (with the open border) in fact we encourage it, we welcome the region’s borders to be open, the economy of the countries in the region to be integrated. Somalis & Somalia will benefit very much from such open border” Foreign Minister Awad said, while last Monday Somalia said it would not sign a deal with IGAD member countries that will allow free movement of citizens.

 

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