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The UN has raised the alarm level on the hunger crisis hitting countries in the Horn of Africa. Half the population, or 6.2 million people now need humanitarian assistance to survive. In Somalia, specifically, violence from Al-shabaab and other armed groups only exacerbates the problem.

Wajid is one of the most desperate villages in southern Somalia, in part because the territory surrounding it is controlled by al-Shabaab, making the supply of crucial aid extremely fraught.


Briefing Room

A Child Dies, a Child Lives: Why Somalia Drought Is Not Another Famine



DOLLOW, Somalia (Reuters) – At the height of Somalia’s 2011 famine, Madow Mohamed had to leave her crippled five-year-old son Abdirahman by the side of the road to lead her eight other starving children toward help.
When she returned to search for him, she found only a grave. He was among the 260,000 Somalis who perished.

“You can never forget leaving your child to die,” she says, wiping away tears at the memory seven years later. “It is a hell that does not end.”

This time, the drought has been harsher. Three seasons of rains have failed, instead of two. But none of Mohamed’s other children have died – and the overall death toll, although unknown, is far lower. The United Nations has documented just over 1,000 deaths, mostly from drinking dirty water.


Earlier donor intervention, less interference by a weakened Islamist insurgency, a stronger Somali government and greater access for aid workers have been crucial.

Another reason is that aid agencies are shifting from giving out food to cash – a less wasteful form of aid that donors such as Canada, Europe and Australia have embraced, although the United States still has restrictions on food aid.

The U.S. Congress will debate a move toward cash-based aid this year when lawmakers vote on a new Farm Bill. Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform.

“A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies,” he told Congress in November.


In 2011, a few donors gave out cash in Somalia, but the World Food Programme only gave out food. It was often hijacked by warlords or pirates, or rotted under tarpaulins as trucks sat at roadblocks.

Starving families had to trek for days through the desert to reach distribution points. Their route became so littered with children’s corpses it was called “the Road of Death”.

Now, more than 70 percent of WFP aid in Somalia is cash, much of it distributed via mobile phones. More than 50 other charities are also giving out cash: each month Mohamed receives $65 from the Italian aid group Coopi to spend as she wants: milk, medicine, food or school fees.

Cash has many advantages over food aid if markets are functioning. It’s invisible, so less likely to be stolen. It’s mobile so families can move or stay put.
WFP said it gave out $134 million directly to Somali families to spend at local shops last year.

“We … basically gave confidence to the market to stay active,” said Laurent Bukera, head of WFP Somalia.

And money is more efficient than bags of food: in Somalia, cash aid means 80 cents in every $1 goes directly to the family, rather than 60 cents from food aid, said Calum McLean, the cash expert at the European Union’s humanitarian aid department.

Cash might have saved little Abdirahman.

“I could have stayed in my village if I had had cash. There was some food in the markets. It was expensive, but if you had money, there was food to buy,” Mohamed said sadly.


Aid groups have been experimenting with cash for two decades but McLean says the idea took off five years ago as the Syrian civil war propelled millions of refugees into countries with solid banking systems.

Donors have adapted. Six years ago, five percent of the EU’s humanitarian aid budget was cash distributions. Today, it is more than a third.

Most of the initial cost lies in setting up the database and the distribution system. After that, adding more recipients is cheap, McLean said. Amounts can be easily adjusted depending on the level of need or funding.

“Cash distributions also becomes cheaper the larger scale you do it,” he said.

Most U.S. international food assistance is delivered by USAID’s Food for Peace Office, which had a budget of $3.6 billion in 2017.

Just under half those funds came through U.S. Farm Bill Title II appropriations, which stipulate that most food must be bought from American farmers. The U.S. Cargo Preference Act requires that half of this be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.

Despite these restrictions, Food for Peace increased cash and voucher programs from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.

But sourcing food aid in the United States is expensive and wasteful, said Barrett, who oversaw a study that found buying grain close to an emergency was half the price and 14 weeks faster. Arguments that food aid supported U.S. farmers or mariners were largely false, he said.


Aid groups use different systems to distribute cash, but most assess families, then register them in a biometric database, usually via fingerprints. Cash is distributed using bank cards or mobile phones or as vouchers.

Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.

In Dollow, the dusty town on the Ethiopian border where Mohamed lives with her surviving children, families say the cash has transformed their lives.

Gacalo Aden Hashi, a young mother whose name means “sweetheart”, remembers trudging past two dead children in 2011 on her way to get help. A third was alive but dying, she said, and her weakened family had to press on.

When she arrived at the camp, men were stealing food aid to give to their families, she said.

“Men were punching each other in line every time at food distributions,” she said. “Sometimes you would be sitting and suddenly your food would be taken by some strong young man.”

Now, she says, no one can steal her money – Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. Most of her cash goes on food but with a group of other women she saved enough to open a small stall.

“The cash may end, but this business will not,” she said.


Cash won’t work everywhere. In South Sudan, where famine briefly hit two counties last year, the civil war shut markets, forcing aid agencies to bring in food by plane and truck.

Sending cash to areas hit by earthquakes would drive up prices. But in a drought, where livelihoods have collapsed but infrastructure is intact, cash transfers are ideal, experts say.

Some problems remain. There’s often little co-ordination among donors – for instance, there are seven separate databases in Somalia, said McLean, and monthly stipends can vary widely.

In Uganda, authorities are investigating reports of fraud after the government used its own biometric registration system for refugees.

And if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.

But most scholars agree that switching to more cash aid would save more lives, a 2016 briefing paper by the Congressional Research Service concluded.

(Additional reporting by George Obulutsa; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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Briefing Room

In Somalia, women defy strict rules to play football



MOGADISHU – (AFP) – Shortly after sunrise, a group of young women arrives at a football pitch in Mogadishu, where they shrug off their hijabs — some changing underneath the billowing veil — to reveal their team kit.

Young Somali men stand nearby, some disapproving but all watching closely, as the women jog up and down, dribble a worn-out ball between colourful cones and do sit-ups, less than 200 metres (656 feet) from a heavily guarded security checkpoint.

The sight of young women playing football is highly unusual in Somalia, due to societal pressures as well as fear of Al-Shabaab.

The Al-Qaeda linked Islamist group launches regular attacks in Mogadishu and considers forms of entertainment, such as football, to be evil, worse still if women are involved.

“It is obvious that we are scared despite the fact that we put on heavy clothes over our shorts and T-shirts (until) we get to the pitch. It is very difficult to walk normally with sports clothes — we never wear sports clothing in society,” said Hibaq Abdukadir, 20, one of the footballers.

She is among 60 girls, who have signed up to train at the Golden Girls Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia’s first female soccer club.

‘Think differently’

Mohamed Abukar Ali, the 28-year-old co-founder of the centre, said he was inspired to create the club after he realised that Somalia had no female footballers.

“We are… trying to make these girls the first Somali female football professionals,” he said.

However this is not an easy task.

Somali football players of Golden Girls Football Centre, Somalia’s first female soccer club, attend their training session at Toyo stadium in Mogadishu, on March 5, 2018. PHOTO | MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB |AFP

“When the girls have to attend training sessions, we have to organise to pick them up and bring them here and back home after the session because they are girls and we think about their security,” said Ali.

“There are so many challenges, from security to lack of resources… but that will not deter our ambition to establish female football clubs in this country,” he said. “We believe it is the right time and we should have the courage to think differently.”
‘They look naked’

Many of the girls who have joined the club said they had always wanted to try playing football but never had the opportunity.

“I have been playing football for seven months, but my family has only known about it for two months,” said Sohad Mohamed, 19.

“I used to dodge my mother about where I was going because she would not allow me to play football, but at least my mum is okay with it now, even though the rest of my family is not happy.”

In Somalia, it is taboo for women to appear in public dressed in shorts, trousers or T-shirts, with Islamic scholars saying sports clothing is not appropriate Islamic dress for women.

The players wear tights underneath their baggy shorts, and cover their hair, but still face criticism for their dress.

“I come to watch them train but frankly speaking, I would not be happy to see my sister doing it, this is not good in society’s eyes because they look naked,” said Yusuf Abdirahman, who lives near the football field.

Mohamed Yahye, another onlooker, is happy to see women playing football but is also concerned about how they are dressed.

“I think there is nothing wrong with women playing football, the only thing they should change is the dress code, they need to wear something that is not slim-fitting. But as long as their body is not seen, they are in line with the Islamic dress codes,” he said.

However the Golden Girls are not fazed.

“My ambition is so high that I aim for the same progress as those female footballers who play for Barcelona,” said Abdukadir.

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Briefing Room

A dream of a continental free trade area deferred



DAILY MAVERICK — A dream of establishing a continental free trade area in Africa has slipped back again after a last-minute decision by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari not to attend the summit in Rwanda where an agreement was set to be finalised. South Africa, the other large economic player on the continent, also has its reservations.

There was a hint of dejection as ministers filed into the beehive-shaped Kigali Convention Centre on Monday morning, in the midst of the rainy season, to hammer out the details of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

The special summit was called by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who this year also chairs the African Union, and talk in the weeks ahead of the gathering was that the agreement only needed a few final touches and that everyone was on board.

It was supposed to be the breakthrough Africa needed before finally rising, and the no-nonsense Kagame was the one to drive this.

The process started in 2012, and free trade was already supposed to have been a thing by 2017, so there was a goal to meet.

Ambassadors had on Saturday already pored over the paperwork, and it was up to the ministers to fine-tune it before the presidents arrive on Wednesday to sign the agreement.
After this, it would have to go through individual country processes, such as parliaments, to be ratified and come into force.

On Sunday, however, news came from Nigeria, which was bidding to host the CFTA secretariat and which chaired the technical negotiations team, that president Muhammadu Buhari had abruptly cancelled his trip to Rwanda.

ThisDay reported that he was already on his way to the airport on Saturday, but was then told to turn back. This was after business groups in Nigeria objected to the signing of the agreement, saying there had not been enough consultations.
They feared that Nigeria would be overwhelmed by business from the outside without Nigerians benefiting from it.

Also, incidentally, the country is having presidential elections next year, in which Buhari might be running again, which might explain the sudden – some would say undue – pressure from within.
Still, Nigerian foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama arrived at the ministers’ meeting where he possibly had a lot of explaining to do.

Outside of the fight about where the secretariat should be located (indications were that even though both Nigeria and Ghana made a bid for it, it was decided to have it at the African Union’s headquarters of Addis Ababa for now), countries had concerns about the dispute resolution mechanisms in the AfCFTA, and also about whether it would effectively be able to prevent dumping.

That would occur if a country outside Africa used an African country with weak import controls to bring goods in from the outside, using it as a springboard to distribute duty-free to the rest of the continent. Instead of promoting business in Africa, as the AfCFTA is supposed to do, this would undermine it.

South Africa, another leading economy on the continent, also had some reservations about the fine print as well as the Protocol on the Free Movement of People, even though President Cyril Ramaphosa apparently indicated that his pen was ready.

Most of the AU’s 55 member states seemed to have no principled objection to signing the agreement and the legal instruments to establish the AfCFTA, which really means nothing much until it’s ratified by all. This happens when local laws and regulations are brought into line with the agreement through a parliamentary process.

South African officials on Monday morning were still unclear about whether Ramaphosa would sign the agreement or not, although some in the Nigerian delegation seemed to be under the impression that Ramaphosa would join Buhari in abstaining.

Ramaphosa himself was expected to attend the summit, and he even arranged to arrive earlier on Tuesday afternoon to attend an AU-organised business summit ahead of the heads of state gathering where the agreement would be signed.

On Monday, international relations minister Lindiwe Sisulu was left to deal with the negotiations even as South Africa’s brand new administration was still busy settling into the continental body (this is her first summit in her new position, and it’s likely that she would have a few bilaterals with her counterparts from other countries to introduce herself).

There was also reported disagreement on how many states needed to sign the agreement for it to come into force. At the lower end, some said 15 states would be enough, while others wanted at least 37. Leaders could eventually settle for something in between, such as half of the states.

As the meeting broke for lunch on Monday, it still wasn’t clear exactly how many states would sign, but an official involved in the negotiations said it was “a good number” and that he was optimistic.
AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahammat imparted the urgency of getting the AfCFTA going in a hard-hitting opening speech, and he seemed to urge leaders to come to an agreement:

“Our continent is at a crossroads,” he said.

“What path will she choose? That of maintaining the status quo, which means making cosmetic changes relating to borderline adjustments which have no real impact on the lives of our populations, or that of effecting a paradigm shift which requires us to look far into the horizon for a truly integrated Africa?”
This would be “structurally reformed economically, guaranteeing the freedom of movement and settlement to all her daughters and all her sons, as well as offering, in the final analysis, fulfilling and promising living conditions for her youth, in a bid to reverse migratory flows”, he said.

Rwandan foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in her opening speech that the agreement should enter into force as soon as possible, but “with everybody feeling comfortable about it”.

She said the agreement would be to the advantage of Africa, which could then act as “a global player” to promote the continent’s economic interests and attract investment, create jobs and improve things for the people.

The official line is that the AfCFTA agreement would grow intra-African trade, which is still lower than trade between African countries and the outside, by 55% by 2022, and Africa’s exports to the rest of the world would grow by 6%.

Life would also be better for small cross-border traders.

The agreement would open a market of 1.2 billion people, and is one of the flagship projects of the AU’s Agenda 2063, a 50-year plan for a transformed Africa.

The other projects are the Single African Air Transport Market and the Protocol on the Free Movement of People.

Even though the protocol was still in draft on Monday, AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry Albert Muchanga promised that it would be ready for signing when heads of state meet on Wednesday.

The dream, however, would have to be deferred for a little while longer. DM

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