Friday, October 28, 2011

Smart Aid to Somali Refugees

Finally. The humanitarian community is wising up when it comes to providing emergency food aid during famine or disaster. But, as usual, the United States is lagging behind.

I'm gathering information for my second book on innovative ways to change the world and erradicate global poverty. Microfinance is at the forefront with its microloans distributed to groups of poor entrepreneurs. When you add in the new products that microfinance institutions are providing today--agricultural loans, cell phone banking, and crop/funeral/health insurance--the future for your typical poor urban dweller or villager is hopeful. These programs are effective and are reaching more and more people.

But then there's food aid, an intervention that is notorious, believe it or not, for doing more harm than good. One, it's expensive (shipping halfway across the planet to remote areas); two, it takes weeks or months to arrive; three, it presents a security nightmare (stolen or sold on local markets); four, it's culturally inappropriate (why would an African want to eat American grain and why are foreigners distributing it?); and five, it hurts local economies. How can local farmers' produce compete with free or discounted food?

The better solution? Vouchers distributed by local NGOs. Seattle-based World Concern has designed a brilliant system to feed desparate victims of drought and famine in eastern Kenya and southern Somalia. In fact, most nations donating food aid are moving towards giving vouchers.

No surprise when you see the benefits. Food vouchers are faster, cheaper, more dignified for the needy, and don't harm the area's economy. In fact, they grow it. Regional farmers have a new market and local merchants have new business: distributing food to places like Dhobley, Somalia near the Dabaab refugee complex. A Somali NGO, the African Rescue Committee, determines who should get vouchers and distributes them. Needy families simply go shopping for their food in local markets. Shop owners accept vouchers knowing that, when they match up with duplicates, they receive a promissory note and eventual reimbursement to their bank account (electronic transfers from Nairobi of all things!). Unfortunately, US AID has not adopted this superior method of intervention. Why? Our motive isn't entirely pure. Our food aid is surplus crops the government buys to keep prices high for US producers.

Yet, this voucher and local-NGO-partnership idea is the kind of ingenuity poor people desperately need. And donors need to insist on it. We really shouldn't just be giving aid to people living in poverty, we should be giving effective aid--aid that uses innovation and smart alliances to build self-reliance and long-term development.

I welcome your comments. Look for more related posts as I continue my book research.


Kerry Miller-Whalen said...

Good to know, Michael! Sounds like your new book will be a really worthwhile read!!

Michael Camp said...

Thanks, Kerry. Getting the vision is easier than implementing it.