More than 19,000 volunteers packed meals to help Somalis facing severe drought and famine.
Almost 5 million meals with the protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals to sustain hungry children and their families will be headed from Minnesota to Somalia, thanks to a four-day food-packing marathon at the St. Paul RiverCentre sponsored by Feed My Starving Children.
Somalia is experiencing severe drought after two consecutive seasons of poor rainfall. In the worst affected areas, lack of water has wiped out crops and killed livestock, forcing people to sell their assets and borrow food and money to survive.
In March, the United Nations said at least 6.2 million people — about half the country — were grappling with acute food shortages. Over a two-day period, at least 110 people died of hunger in just a single region, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire told National Public Radio.
Feed My Starving Children, in conjunction with Love, Somalia, has already shipped 3.5 million meals to Somalia this year. Its four-day event in St. Paul, which ended Monday, had a goal of 6 million meals. When the doors closed Monday evening, 4,906,440 meals had been hand-packed by volunteers, said Allison Schwartz, communications manager for Feed My Starving Children, making it the largest mobile food packing event in the organization’s history.
The event had a fundraising goal of $1.5 million, as well; $85,000 was raised online, and Schwartz didn’t have any updated figures Monday.
The group has three permanent food-packing sites in Minnesota (in Eagan, Chanhassen and Coon Rapids), three in Illinois and one in Arizona. Those are open six days a week, with five two-hours shifts each day. All the work is done by volunteers.
Jodi Annis of Minnetonka brought her 6-year-old daughter, Leona, to work a two-hour shift on Sunday. Friends brought their children.
“We packed 945 boxes,” Annis said. “And each box has 18 bags. It was pretty remarkable. Back in January, when the administration turned over, I got inspired to do more community work and help out as much as I can,” she said. “This one came up on my radar.”
The work was a learning tool for Leona, too. That morning, her mom said, Leona couldn’t decide what to eat for breakfast.
“She was hemming and hawing. I said, you could go hungry, which is what the Somalis are doing right now because they can’t grow food,” Annis said. “She thought that was terrible.”
The whole experience “was a blast,” Annis said. “They had great music and people were pumped up and excited. It always feels great to help out other people.
Feed My Starving Children had hoped for 30,000 volunteers. About 19,000 people signed up online and many more showed up as walk-ins, Schwartz said.
Each of the “MannaPack” meals contains rice, textured soy protein, dehydrated vegetables and a vegetarian flavoring with more than 20 micronutrients. The ingredients are specially formulated to help children thrive and to reverse and prevent malnutrition. When the meals arrive at their destination, they can be supplemented with other vegetables and meat.
“The volunteers’ hands are literally the last hands that touch the meals before it’s being opened in other countries to serve children,” Schwartz said. The meals are distributed to communities and are often used in school programs, she said.
Feed My Starving Children uses the money raised to buy the food. Schwartz said 90 percent of donations go directly to the program.
The group works with partner agencies in Somalia and 70 other countries to ship and distribute the food. The food packed in the RiverCentre event probably will reach Somalia in about two months, she said.
For Somalia, this is the second drought in six years. In 2011, more than 250,000 people died during a drought and famine.
Aid agencies switch to cash-based cards in Somalia
In Somalia, the UN says almost three million people are at risk of drought and malnutrition.
Many of them have had to leave their homes in search of water and food, but there isn’t always enough.
As TRT World’s Adesewa Josh reports, aid agencies are turning to cash to find ways around the problem.
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.
FROM FOOD TO CASH
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.
HOW IT WORKS
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)
In a Man’s Death, a Glimpse of Libya’s Horrors
HRW — A young Eritrean man died on Tuesday in Sicily of tuberculosis compounded by severe malnutrition. His name was Segen.* He was 22.
There is so much about Segen we may never know. Did he prefer to read books or play football? What music did he like? Had he ever been in love? Who did he leave behind?
This is what we do know: Segen was rescued from the Mediterranean on Sunday by Pro Activa Open Arms, a Spanish group, and disembarked in Sicily on Monday. He died in the hospital. He told rescuers he was held captive in Libya for 19 months.
Segen may have been held in an official detention center or by smugglers – in today’s Libya, both are similar and brutal. He may have been held for ransom, or tortured while forced to call home so his family could hear him scream as he begged them to send money. He may have been sold from one smuggling network to another or forced to work without pay.
These possibilities are based on accounts I heard from migrants who escaped Libya. When I went out on a rescue ship run by SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médécins sans Frontières, they rescued many Eritreans and Somalis who had spent many months in captivity in Libya; some were severely emaciated.
If Segen had survived, there’s a good chance he would have been granted the right to stay in Europe; most Eritreans are because of serious repression, including indefinite military conscription, in Eritrea.
Yet European governments are empowering Libyan authorities to stop migrant boat departures and intercept – including in international waters – ones that do launch. All of those on board are then indefinitely detained in Libya.
While implementing policies that effectively trap people like Segen in horrible abuse, European governments are failing to resettle people the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, evacuates from Libya to Niger. Just over 1,000 people have been taken to Niger, but only 55 have been resettled to Europe, leading Niger to ask UNHCR to temporarily suspend the program.
Europe can and should do more. Our governments should focus on ending the cycle of captivity and violence in Libya and help as many people as possible reach a place of safety. Ramping up resettlement is a good place to start.
*Italian authorities registered his name as Tesfalidet Tesfon, but he was known as Segen.