I recently returned from spending a week in Somalia, where I saw first-hand the catastrophic effects that today’s famine is having on its people, and how drought has devastated the land they depend on.
Agriculture is the country’s largest employer, with two-thirds of Somalia’s workforce traditionally relying on farming to scratch a living. But no longer, however, for years of drought have reduced fields to parched scrubland that cannot be farmed or used to sustain livestock, leading to the deaths of many thousands of cattle, sheep and goats. As a result, some 6.5 million people – half the population of Somalia – have had to leave their barren farmlands in search of food and water.
The number of people affected by the combination of drought and famine is unprecedented, with women, children and older people suffering the most – more than 800,000 children under the age of five are severely malnourished.
Since March, Islamic Relief has worked to highlight the urgent need for funds to help the 16 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan who are on the brink of starvation and in immediate need of food, water and medical treatment. Firstly, in collaboration with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), through our joint East Africa Crisis Appeal, and then later through our own independent campaign.
Thankfully, the response from the British public has been phenomenal, with the DEC crisis appeal raising an incredible £50 million to enable its member charities to step up their response and provide more food, water and medical care to these millions of people. Most are women and children who walk 30km in excruciating heat in search of some food and water.
During the 2011 famine, 260,000 people died in Somalia. History looks set to repeat itself unless we act now to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
I visited three camps in Somalia for people who have been internally displaced. At one of the camps I met two dear people who shared their stories with me – stories that I believe captures the pain and grief that millions of people are experiencing there on a daily basis.
Fatouma, from the town of Burhakaba in the south western Bay region, around 250km from Mogadishu, told me:
“We are farmers and our lives depend on our livestock and farming. With no rain there was no food for our cattle to eat and 30 of our cattle very quickly died. We weren’t able to grow anything, and we were forced to leave home in search of food and water.”
With her husband and their six malnourished children, the family left their village with only the clothes on their backs. Their journey on foot was an arduous one. “Walking in this heat was almost unbearable, but we had no choice,” she said. “My children were sick because we couldn’t feed them. The bodies of my three youngest started to badly swell.”
Unknown to Fatouma, the swelling was an indicator of kwashiorkor, a serious form of malnutrition due to a diet lacking in protein and other essential nutrients. Too much fluid in the body’s tissues causes swelling under the skin and results in an enlarged “pot-belly” stomach, leaving children very vulnerable to infections.
Sadly, one by one, her three youngest children Nooratu, Khadiju and Usman, died on the journey to Mogadishu. Fatouma and her husband could not afford to bury their children but local villagers en route raised the money for the three funerals.
It took the rest of the family 10 days to reach Mogadishu. They arrived at a camp with little sanitation, where the only food is that which is donated by local people, who are themselves struggling to get by. Camps like these are filling up fast. Over two days the numbers had swelled by over 200.
We did not speak the same language, but from looking into Fatouma’s eyes it was clear that she was still in a deep state of shock, her pain palpable from her body language.
Then there is Mohammad Ali Abdullah, who lost his wife to acute watery diarrhoea. When you are thirsty, and there is no clean water but puddles of mud, you become so desperate that you drink that. She contracted diarrhoea and, as a result, passed away.
I met Mohammad and his five children when they had just arrived at the camp, desperately looking for shelter from the sun and the intense heat. They were a sad sight, having lost their mother on top of walking for days without food or water.
This is a crisis upon a crisis. It is the reality for millions of people in Somalia and now across much of East Africa. Unless we continue to act by donating to Islamic Relief’s East Africa Crisis Appeal or any of the aid agencies already working on the ground, we could be facing another catastrophic humanitarian disaster in the region that will overshadow the 2011 famine.
Donations to Islamic Relief’s East Africa Crisis Appeal can be made here.
Follow Tufail Hussain on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TufailH
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.