Connect with us

Humanitarian Watch

How a rapid response helped to avert famine in Somalia last year



Concern Worlwide — In our ‘thought leadership’ series, Concern’s Humanitarian and Resilience Senior Policy Officer, Alexander Carnwath, and Resilience Programme Manager in Somalia, Dustin Caniglia examine the effectiveness of early warning systems and rapid response in helping to avert famine in Somalia last year and their continued importance in 2018.

Fears for the worst

When Somalia was cited as one of four countries on the brink of famine in early 2017, it brought on a grim sense of déjà vu. Between 2010 and 2012, a combination of drought and conflict led to a devastating famine, in which an estimated 260,000 people lost their lives. Five years on, there were fears that a similar situation was unfolding all over again.

A year later however, and the picture is not as bleak as had been feared. The humanitarian response, with aid targeted at some of the worst affected areas, has so far succeeded in staving off widespread famine. The situation remains severe and, following four consecutive poor rainy seasons, there is a huge and ongoing demand for humanitarian assistance with an estimated 6.2 million people in need. But the predictions that were made at the start of the year of a disaster on the scale of the last famine have not yet materialised.

Early Warning System: Identifying the signs

This is thanks in part to a more rapid reaction by the humanitarian community than in 2012, and Concern has been one of the agencies focusing particularly on ensuring a timely response.

Ads By Google

Early Warning Early Action (EWEA) – identifying and responding more quickly to the signs of coming crisis – is a central part of the DFID-funded Building Resilient Communities in Somalia (BRCiS) programme which Concern is implementing together with Norwegian Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children and CESVI. It systematically monitors conditions in its programme areas and includes a mechanism to trigger a rapid localised response when signs of a potential crisis emerge.

Rapid response
Most of Somalia depends on two annual rainy seasons for agriculture and livestock production, and when, as early as June 2016, there were signs that the April to June Gu rains were not performing well, BRCiS began responding with cash transfers of $30 per month to 803 of the poorest households in Gedo.

In November, as the subsequent Deyr rains appeared to be failing and the probability of disaster had therefore increased, Concern increased the amount to $50 per month and doubled the number of recipient households to 1606, now including the poorest 20 percent of households.

By January 2017, with the failure of the rains confirmed, Concern was able to increase the cash transfers to $60 per month with newly accessed emergency funds from DFID and ECHO. Despite the crisis, markets continued to function and food remained available for purchase, minimising displacement to urban centres.

Increased resilience

Our approach to EWEA meant that by the time the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) – the leading source of food security and nutrition surveillance in Somalia – indicated the possibility of famine in Somalia for the first time in a report published on 16 January, 2017 Concern’s BRCiS Programme staff had already been responding to that possibility in half of its target communities for seven months.

Ongoing discussions with the BRCiS target communities and observations by Concern field staff, suggest that as a result of this early action, the villages in which BRCiS operates are faring considerably better than might have been expected. While over 900,000 households have been displaced across the country since November 2016, none of the BRCiS villages have experienced significant numbers of people leaving due to the drought. In fact, even though BRCiS communities were originally targeted as the most vulnerable in their respective areas, most have since become hosts to displaced people from nearby and previously “better off” villages.

Averting future crises: early and effective response

It is important, of course, to keep these successes in perspective. BRCiS programme was a pilot through which Concern supported fewer than 30 villages, a number that pales in comparison to the 900,000 people forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in urban centres due to the food crisis. But this does show what can be achieved in mitigating the impacts of major slow-onset disasters in Somalia.

With millions of people still affected by food crisis in Somalia, it remains imperative to learn the lessons of the past two years and continue to respond to emerging needs early and effectively, in order to continue to keep famine at bay.

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)

Continue Reading

Briefing Room

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.

Continue Reading

Humanitarian Watch

Donors Urged to Help Avoid Famine in Somalia



VOA — LONDON — The competing demands of numerous global crises mean some 2.7 million people in Somalia who need food are at risk of being ignored by donors, increasing the country’s likelihood of famine, aid agencies said Monday.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the U.N.’s World Food Programme said early action in Somalia would cost less than having to deal with famine.

“Whether it’s Syria, Iraq or South Sudan, the size and cost of response to international emergencies is growing, and all crises are having to compete,” Nigel Tricks, regional director at the NRC, told Reuters.

About 6.2 million people in Somalia — half the population— need emergency aid, such as food, water and shelter, due to unprecedented drought and ongoing conflict, the United Nations said in January when it appealed for $1.6 billion.

Aid agencies use the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system to determine food security. If 20 percent of households have an extreme lack of food and people are dying of starvation, then famine is declared.

Somalia, with a population of 12.4 million people, has not yet reached that stage but 2.2 million Somalians are facing a food crisis, the U.N. said in an email, with a further 500,000 facing an even more severe food emergency.

“It’s much cheaper overall to avert famines … but it’s hard for donors globally to keep coming up with the money when humanitarian needs are outstripping donors’ increased rate of funding,” said Peter Smerdon of the WFP.

The U.N., governments and donors will discuss Somalia at a meeting Thursday in London.

“The signals are that it is getting worse day after day. Therefore, an urgent assistance is desperately needed,” Shukri Ismail Bandare, minister of rural development for Somaliland, a northern region that operates autonomously, said by email.

Somalia’s 2011 famine killed 260,000 people. Half died before the official declaration of famine, which was caused by drought, war and lack of access for humanitarian aid.

The country has been mired in conflict since 1991. Its weak, Western-backed government is struggling to assert control over poor, rural areas under the Islamist militant group al-Shabab — challenging the delivery of aid to the most needy.

Continue Reading