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Humanitarian Watch

Somaliland’s women show kindness and leadership in the face of a humanitarian crisis

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For three years now, Somaliland, like much of East Africa, has experienced extreme drought. Drought that has become more and more severe, until earlier this year, with thousands on the brink of starvation, the government of Somaliland declared a national emergency.
The crisis should serve as a warning to the rest of the world to prepare – and prepare well – for extreme weather events, which are occurring with greater frequency and ferocity than ever before.

As the drought ravages the communities of Somaliland and its neighbours, hurricane Irma is making its destructive path through the Caribbean islands towards Florida. Countries in South Asia have been battling floods affecting more than 24 million people. Hurricane Harvey has wreaked havoc on the United States’ Gulf of Mexico. Sierra Leone has scrambled to respond to the deadly impacts of a landslide that took nearly 500 lives.

Needless to say, the impacts of these events are wide reaching. They extend beyond the obvious food, water and shelter shortages to the inevitable knock-on effects, such as mass migration within and across country borders, and the aggravation of pre-existing inequalities.

I’ve recently spent two weeks in the small, self-declared independent state in the northwest of Somalia, meeting women leading the humanitarian response to the disaster in their villages. Just hours outside Hargeisa, Somaliland’s tiny capital, I met women in drought-ravaged communities who have taken up leadership roles for the first time in their lives. These women are desperate to protect the lives of those most at risk in the ongoing crisis.

The impact of the drought on Somaliland’s communities has been extreme. The first two years were increasingly difficult, the women told me, but this last year has been the worst. After years of coping with dwindling water supplies – supplies required for business, for food preparation, for sanitation – it eventually evaporated almost entirely. Money ran out, animals died. With little to eat, whole communities became malnourished.
In Somaliland, those who were marginalised before the drought have experienced its greatest effects. In Saylabari, women have formed a collective to ensure that those most in need are the first to receive assistance when aid is distributed in their village.

And who are most affected? Women, they tell me. Women, who have long borne the brunt of a patriarchal system, and its brutish brother, poverty.

Singularly responsible for the care of their children, the stress that mothers have experienced in the drought has been severe. High rates of illiteracy among women who have been denied education means less access to information about what relief is on its way and who will have access to it.

Levels of domestic violence have increased significantly. Women whose husbands have left in search of alternative income are now responsible for providing for their families, as well as caring for them. Forced to forage for water in far off places, women are often raped on their journeys.

For those who migrate, the stories are worse. Over the past six months, people have left their homes in great numbers to search for water and for places their animals can graze on healthy vegetation. Leaving is a gamble –people leave in the hope that there is more sustenance further afield, but without any guarantee of finding it.

Somaliland’s experience of disaster is typical of any emergency insofar as it disproportionately affects women and those marginalised before the crisis. This is a well-recognised truth that should teach us an important lesson. The only way to prepare adequately for disasters of this scale is to address the deeply entrenched gender inequalities in access to resources and decision making.

One hundred kilometres from Saylabari and its women’s collective, a burgeoning women’s coalition have waged their own humanitarian response to the crisis in the village of Gorgeysa.

Their own community is unaffected by the drought, but the women’s coalition introduced a policy that every family in the community must take in two families. Chairwoman Ruun Essa Habane said, “We were receiving so many migrants – so many people who were searching for safety and for food and water. We had to work out how we could care for them.”

The collective pooled its resources, resources that the women had been saving over the three years that they have been working together. They used them to provide for those in their care. They donated clothes.

When I expressed my stunned (Australian) admiration, Essa Habane seemed surprised. “What else could we do?” she said. “We have the money.”

“The community cannot make decisions without us,” said Essa Habane. “We decided we wanted to support those affected by the drought and that was it.”

There is much that Australia could learn from the women of Somaliland and their response to the country’s protracted disaster. While the women in communities in Somaliland give up the little they have to support those who lack their basic needs, Australia struggles to respond humanely to the asylum seeker crisis that we have created.

Rather than responding with kindness to our fellow human beings, our politicians wallow in arguments about space and resources, postulating threats of terrorism and disseminating notions of greedy people jumping queues to grab “our” resources.

It’s worth considering how we might respond if our leadership wouldn’t primarily consist of white advantaged men, who struggle to see beyond the privilege that has always defined their lives, to empathise with those on the margins.

How long can Australia get away with this cruel and selfish response to those in need? Climate change is taking its toll – and it’s a toll that will eventually catch us up.

Extreme weather events are already leading to forced migration, in Somaliland and well beyond it, and in the years to come, millions of people will be on the move, in desperate search of food and water.

If we are to respond effectively to these impending crises – if we are, like the women of Gorgeysa and Saylabari, to ensure that nobody goes without, especially those most vulnerable – we must take action now to ensure that women are equally represented in leadership positions, and that they have the support to maintain them.

Female leaders create space for other women to take up leadership roles and to participate fully in decision making. They consistently make decisions that benefit whole communities, and ensure that everybody is considered and cared for.

At the end of every conversation I had with different women in Somaliland, they would ask me the same question: “What are things like for women in your country? What advice do you have for us as we strive for greater things – for presidency?”

All I could tell them was that in Australia, we’ve taken great steps forward but that the road ahead is long. I said that we could learn from them. That by supporting women’s leadership, perhaps we too, some day, might say, “What else could we do? We have the money.”

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Humanitarian Watch

Aid agencies switch to cash-based cards in Somalia

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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.

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Briefing Room

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

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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.

Why?

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.

GLOBAL SHIFT

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.

PROBLEMS PERSIST

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 a Man’s Death, a Glimpse of Libya’s Horrors

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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.

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