Without intervention, the poor of northern Somalia will starve, Chai Brady hears
Years of bad rains and extended dry periods are causing a major food and livelihood crisis in the Horn of Africa. In some areas aid workers face kidnapping and even murder but they still make sure those who are in need are supported.
The food situation has reached such an acute stage that one woman in northern Somalia told a visiting Irish aid worker: “In the past our animals used to feed us, now we’re having to feed them, because they’re starving, there’s no fodder, there’s no grass and they are dying, and we will be next.”
CEO of Plan International Ireland Paul O’Brien told The Irish Catholic about this experience, and of visiting villages the charity supports in northern Somalia protected by armed police officers carrying Kalashnikovs, earlier this year.
Many of the people he met were Internally Displaced People (IDPs), of which there is an estimated three million in Somalia, according to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). IDPs are forced from their homes for many reasons including conflict, but Mr O’Brien saw many people who had lost their livelihoods due to the extreme weather.
“A lot of the people that I met are pastoralists, or nomadic people, who would have – literally for centuries –depended on their animals, their cattle,” he said.
“They described to me what they referred to as climate change. They said that 30-35 years ago they would have had 4-5 years of good rain maybe, followed by one year of very poor rains and they could cope with that when it happened because they had their animals, they could either kill more animals and eat, or they could sell a few and buy food and eat.”
“Whereas now in recent years they say it has turned the complete opposite, they’re getting 4-5 years of bad rains or maybe no rain at all, and maybe one year of OK rain,” Mr O’Brien said, “Essentially what has happened is their animals have mostly died. We saw huge numbers of carcasses along roads, outside villages and outside homesteads as well. So their livelihood is gone.”
He explained that while it may seem strange during a food crisis, there is food available in local markets but it has become prohibitively expensive because of scarcity, but also partly because of the war in Ukraine.
Mr O’Brien added that “unscrupulous traders” are “shoving up the price” because food is in high demand. The cost of fuel has also increased, adding another challenging dimension to a country that imports the vast majority of its food.
“Essentially there may be food on the local market for people, but if you have lost your means of making a living essentially you can’t afford to buy it,” Mr O’Brien said.
“So these people are literally living hand to mouth day to day and what we try to do for them in Plan, the key thing, is to put cash into their hands on a monthly basis as a cash grant – we call it in our sector an unconditional cash transfer.”
Plan International give people €105 which can be used on whatever the individual decides is necessary. When the charity asked in what way the money was used, they hear it is generally spent on food, toiletries and clothes. They try to maintain payments for a number of months to help those who are impoverished.
Mr O’Brien makes the bleak statement that “these are very poor people who don’t have a means to survive and unless people come in and help them during this period, they literally will starve”.
He said he has an admiration for people in such dire circumstances, particularly women, who he says will make sure that they feed their children first and then themselves. In some cases, he said that “you can see them suffering even more so than their kids”.
Regarding the treatment of women, Mr O’Brien explained that it is one of the downsides of Somalia that there is a huge issue of gender inequality.
“Men and women are not treated equally, it’s a very paternalistic society, it’s very male dominated, so you have major issues around female genital mutilation (FGM), you have major issues around early child marriage,” he said.
“What we would see in the culture is that the men eat first, then the adult women and then the children, but the younger girls would eat last. For an agency like ours, we’re very much trying to keep girls in school, to get families to value girls as much as they value their boys, to make sure they have the same level of opportunities in terms of going to school, that they get the same amount of food,” he explained.
“Sometimes when food is scarce there’s always a desire to make sure the son survives even more so than the daughter, because the daughter is going to get married and leave the home whereas the son will look after the parents in their old age and that is, in a sense, their pension.”
He said influencing change in this regard is a “slow burn”, as they try to convince families that if their daughter is educated they can be more productive and have a better life.
The charity also organises water trucks that visit villages, which cost €200 each run. Mr O’Brien said that in Ireland access to clean water is taken as a given. He was shocked by how dry the area he visited had become.
“I come from a farming background myself and you know the importance of water for animals, there it is a huge issue. The water table has declined so much that if you want a well you would have to go down 350 metres,” he said.
Building a well reaching those depths and installing a submersible pump is costly, and even when water is reached it may be salty. For this reason, Plan International have decided digging wells in the area is too much of a risk. They instead continue trucking water into villages – a scenario he saw himself.
“Even as I witnessed that water being delivered it was being taken out as fast as it was going in from the truck and people were just taking it away to feed their animals and to put into bigger buckets or tanks for their own use over the next 2-3 days – because we were doing it twice a week in two different villages,” Mr O’Brien said.
In addition to the cash transfers, Plan International also provide small business loans, particularly to families and women in order to help them become independent and no longer require the charity’s assistance. Mr O’Brien said the money can be used to set up a small restaurant, to buy cutlery, and food to cook and sell. “It’s getting little businesses running like that so people can have a livelihood again,” he added.
“The biggest challenge we would find for poor people is they’re basically living for today and just trying to survive for today, whereas if you tell them, ‘Listen, we’re giving you this grant today and in a month’s time we’ll give you another grant, the same amount’, they can go and plan,” he said.
“That might seem a small, basic thing, but when you’re very poor and you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, to know that there is a system that will support you for the next 2-3 months, that allows them to use some of the money for productive purposes. They can buy something they can pay back over a three-month period with the money they’re getting from us, it allows them to establish a small business and get going.”
The future needs for the region are uncertain but Mr O’Brien said Plan International are “extremely concerned” about the impact of climate change. “I think [Irish] people have no idea really what a drought is… to see areas that are completely parched. We’re seeing an end of a way of life for pastoralists, it’s just not viable for them to be able to continue, and essentially what we’re trying to do is give them an alternative way of life,” he said.
Legacy donations are “hugely important” for Plan International. Mr O’Brien said that sometimes when people leave money in their will, they might ask that it be spent on education for girls.
“We can put that money towards teacher training, towards providing classrooms, towards providing books and various sorts of things. So when people leave legacies in their will it’s a hugely beneficial thing for agencies like Plan to be able to continue the work that we do and be able to support communities, support families that are in great need,” he said.
For Aoife Garvey, chairperson of My Legacy – a group established by Irish charities to highlight the importance of legacy donations – awareness about the practice is still low. My Legacy is an umbrella group now consisting of 80 charities working together to make legacy giving the norm in Ireland.
They have seen increases in the number of people making wills and leaving legacy gifts to charities, with the outbreak of Covid-19 having an impact.
Ms Garvey said: “I think the pandemic really got us thinking about the future and putting measures in place and communicating our wishes. So I do think the pandemic brought about some good habits in terms of will writing and people having those conversations and taking those steps.”
Legacy donations can range from a few hundred euro to gifts that are quite significant, according to Ms Garvey, who insists that any gift, big or small, is of huge value to a charity.
“The amazing thing about legacy gifts is that they’re future gifts, if you decide today to leave a gift to a charity in your will that’s a gift that will come to fruition in the future for the charity so it’s a way of making sure that the causes you care about are protected into the future,” she said.
The process is not difficult, Ms Garvey adds, with the first step being to contact a solicitor to write a will if a person does not have one. “If you have an existing will you can amend it. It’s very common for people at some point in their life to make some changes to their will and that’s a very simple process – both the process of updating or creating a will for the first time,” she said.
“Solicitors have almost a checklist of the things they have to go through with you and I believe it’s a brief enough appointment and an inexpensive appointment too.”
For people finding it difficult to choose a charity to support, Ms Garvey said many times people choose one of which they have some personal experience.
“People often leave a gift to one or maybe two or three charities if they have causes that are really close to them. What we see is people either leaving gifts to services that they have personally benefitted or they know somebody who has used the service and want to give back to that charity, that cause,” she said.
“Or it’s a service or a cause you are very passionate about and you’d like to see that that work is done long into the future too. If you are thinking of leaving a gift to a charity, I would encourage you to contact them, and talk to them or ask for some more information. They would be more than happy to hear from you and answer any questions especially if there was any uncertainty or things you want a clarification on.
“It’s a very personal choice and it tends to be something you’re very passionate about or you’ve experienced the work first-hand and you want to make sure it will be continued in the future,” Ms Garvey added.