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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

Egypt Warns Ethiopia Nile dam Dispute ‘Life or Death’

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for the second time in as many days, has delivered a stern warning to Ethiopia over a dam it is building after the two countries along with Sudan failed to approve a study on its potential effects.

Ethiopia is finalizing construction of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. Egypt fears that will cut into its water supply.

Cairo said last week that the three countries had failed to approve an initial study by a consultancy firm on the dam’s potential effects on Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia has repeatedly reassured Egypt, but Cairo’s efforts to engage in closer coordination have made little headway.

El-Sissi sought to reassure Egyptians in televised comments Saturday, but stressed that “water is a matter of life or death.”

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US military responsible for instability in Somalia: Analyst

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The US is increasing its military involvement in Africa to destabilize the continent’s governments and gain control over their resources and strategic ports, an African American researcher in Washington says.

The Pentagon revealed on Thursday that the United States now has some 500 troops on the ground in Somalia even as it denies a “build-up” of forces in the African country.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has also said that there have been 28 US airstrikes in Somalia this year, mostly from drones and against purported al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants.

“Somalia is a very important area for both American businesses as well as a means to counter-balance against its regional adversaries,” Randy Short told Press TV on Friday.

“In the case of Somalia, Somalia is rich in oil, gold and it has got its ports in the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean,” Short said.

“Any instability in Somalia is Unites States’ fault,” he said. “The United States has been tampering with Somalia for the better part of thirty five years.”
The US is deploying militant groups and mercenaries to Africa to “create problems to justify the armed presence of US forces in places like Niger, the Central African Republic, Mali and of course Somalia,” he said.

The US military recently conducted six straight days of airstrikes in Somalia — from last Thursday to Tuesday, according to US media.

AFRICOM was established in 2008 under then US President George W. Bush and strengthened and enhanced the following year during the presidency of Barack Obama.

The force has been operating in at least 35 countries across the African continent.

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Saving Somalia Through Debt Relief

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KEVIN WATKINS

Kevin Charles Watkins is the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK

Somalia needs humanitarian aid to stem its short-term suffering, but that cash will not break the country’s deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. To do that, the IMF must forgive Somalia’s crushing debt, just as it has for nearly every other heavily indebted poor country.

LONDON – Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, once asked his country’s creditors a blunt question: “Must we starve our children to pay our debts?” That was in 1986, before the public campaigns and initiatives that removed much of Africa’s crushing and unpayable debt burden. But Nyerere’s question still hangs like a dark cloud over Somalia.

Over the last year, an unprecedented humanitarian effort has pulled Somalia back from the brink of famine. As the worst drought in living memory destroyed harvests and decimated livestock, almost $1 billion was mobilized in emergency aid for nutrition, health, and clean water provision. That aid saved many lives and prevented a slow-motion replay of the 2011 drought, when delayed international action resulted in nearly 260,000 deaths.

Yet, even after these recent efforts, Somalia’s fate hangs in the balance. Early warning systems are pointing to a prospective famine in 2018. Poor and erratic rains have left 2.5 million people facing an ongoing food crisis; some 400,000 children live with acute malnutrition; food prices are rising; and dry wells have left communities dependent on expensive trucked water.

Humanitarian aid remains essential. Almost half of Somalia’s 14 million people need support, according to UN agencies. But humanitarian aid, which is often volatile and overwhelmingly short-term, will not break the deadly cycles of drought, hunger, and poverty. If Somalia is to develop its health and education systems, economic infrastructure, and the social protection programs needed to build a more resilient future, it needs predictable, long-term development finance.

Debt represents a barrier to that finance. Somalia’s external debt is running at $5 billion. Creditors range from rich countries like the United States, France, and Italy, to regional governments and financial institutions, including the Arab Monetary Fund.

But Somalia’s debt also includes $325 million in arrears owed to the International Monetary Fund. And there’s the rub: countries in arrears to the IMF are ineligible to receive long-term financing from other sources, including the World Bank’s $75 billion concessional International Development Association (IDA) facility.

Much of the country’s current debt dates to the Cold War, when the world’s superpower rivalry played out in the Horn of Africa. Over 90% of Somalia’s debt burden is accounted for by arrears on credit advanced in the early 1980s, well before two-thirds of today’s Somali population was born.

Most of the lending then was directed to President Siad Barre as a reward for his abandonment of the Soviet Union and embrace of the West. Military credits figured prominently: over half of the $973 million in US debt is owed to the Department of Defense. Somalia got state-of-the-art weaponry, liberally financed by loans. The IMF was nudged into guaranteeing repayment through a structural adjustment program.  Repaying the debt today would cost every Somali man, woman, and child $361.

None of this would matter if Somalia had qualified for debt reduction. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC), created in response to the great debt relief campaigns of the 1990s, has written off around $77 billion in debt for 36 countries. Somalia is one of just three countries that have yet to qualify. The reason: the arrears owed to the IMF. (Eritrea and Sudan have also not qualified, for similar reasons).

The IMF view is that Somalia, like earlier HIPC beneficiaries, should establish a track record of economic reform. This will delay a full debt write-off for up to three years, exclude Somalia from long-term development finance, and reinforce its dependence on emergency aid. Other creditors have endorsed this approach through silent consent.

Somalia deserves better. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government has demonstrated a commitment to economic reform, improved accountability, and transparency. For two years, it has adhered to an IMF program, achieving targets for improving public finance and the banking sector. More needs to be done, especially in terms of domestic resource mobilization. But this is the first Somali government to provide the international community with a window of opportunity to support recovery. We must capitalize on it.

Waiting three more years as Somalia ticks the IMF’s internal accounting boxes would be a triumph of bureaucratic complacency over human needs. Without international support, Somalia’s government lacks the resources needed to break the deadly cycle of drought, hunger, and poverty.

Somalia’s children need investment in health, nutrition, and schools now, not at some point in the indefinite future. Investing in irrigation and water management would boost productivity. With drought-related livestock and crop losses estimated at around $1.5 billion, government-supported cash payment programs would help aid recovery, strengthen resilience, and build trust.

The benefits of these investments would extend to security. Providing the hope that comes with education, health care, and the prospect of a job is a far more effective weapon than a drone to combat an insurgency that feeds on despair, poverty, joblessness, and the absence of basic services.

There is an alternative to IMF-sponsored inertia on debt relief. The World Bank and major creditors could convene a creditor summit to agree to terms for a prompt debt write-off. More immediately, the World Bank could seek its shareholders’ approval for a special mechanism – a “pre-arrears clearance grant” – that would enable Somalia to receive IDA financing. There is a precedent for this: In 2005, the US championed World Bank financing for Liberia, which at the time had significant IMF debt after emerging from civil war.

The technicalities can be discussed and the complexities resolved. But we should not lose sight of what is at stake. It is indefensible for the IMF and other creditors to obstruct Somalia’s access to financing because of arrears on a debt incurred three decades ago as much through reckless lending as through irresponsible borrowing.

Somalia’s children played no part in creating that debt. They should not have to pay for it with their futures.

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