Somalia drought: When second-guessing costs lives

Somalia drought: When second-guessing costs lives

Publication info

Gareth Price Jones

Two weeks ago, while traveling through Somaliland, a self-declared independent state in the north of Somalia, I heard many stories of drastic loss. One that stuck with me was an elderly woman who had lost over a hundred goats to the drought. I asked what we could do. She replied that "nothing can be done for the livestock; it’s about saving the people now." 

The current drought in Somalia cannot be discussed without taking into consideration the lessons learnt from the severe famine in the year 2011 where over a quarter of a million people died. Since then, aid organizations and families have worked hand in hand to build people’s ability to survive drought across the region. Somalia has new leadership and, drought and hunger notwithstanding, a sense of hope that has been long missing. What’s great as an aid worker is hearing how our resilience programs such as village savings and loan groups have enabled people to survive three failed rains already, and helped family, clan and diaspora support networks to keep people alive. Across the border, despite a drought significantly worse than the 1980s one that triggered Live Aid, there have been no mass deaths, and Ethiopia has continued a robust support program for both their citizens and over 750,000 refugees. It’s great to know our programs are working, but in the face of drought this extreme they don’t quite take us over the finish line. 

On the flip side, we’re facing an extremely challenging global context. Our money and people are stretched thin across the ‘four famines’ in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia. The Syria conflict has entered its seventh year, violence is ongoing in Iraq, and we face numerous neglected crises, such as the ongoing El Nino drought impacts in Southern Africa where CARE alone has reached a million people with food assistance in the last 12 months. Politically we see the US stepping back from its leadership role, and Europe has arguably left the burden of supporting huge numbers of refugees and displaced people largely to ‘first safe’ countries – i.e. the poor countries neighbouring wars and disasters.  

In Somaliland we drove hundreds of kilometres though barren and parched land, passing dried up river beds and people searching for water and pasture. Carcasses littered the road – the local equivalent of savings accounts wasting away in the blazing sun. The people I talked to were exhausted, having gone through a complete loss of livelihood, many not knowing how to feed and water their families over the coming months. When I was there, the rainy season was supposed to start – yet I did not see a single drop of water. It is extremely likely that this will be the fourth consecutive rainy season that fails. 

Since my return, I have been advocating with governments and donors, asking for two main things: 

Firstly, we need more funding to equip international and local aid organizations to respond now and avoid a full blown famine. While livestock has died, we still have time to prevent humans from dying on a huge scale. As well as from public appeals, these funds will largely need to come from institutional donors, such as the governments of the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. I am aware that asking for money is a common refrain from those of us in the NGO community, yet it’s the only efficient means for us to tackle this crises and to help people in need.

There is a silver lining: although the widespread narrative is that populism is undermining support for humanitarian response, it’s simply not true. Private giving for these crises has been inspiring, with €115 million raised through joint public appeals in seven countries. Some government donors are stepping up – the UK rapidly committed over £100 million funds and provided leadership, while the US purchased 30,000 tonnes of food in December last year to ensure a steady stream of food arriving in the region. Yet it is not enough. 

In the few days where we drove 1,500 kilometres across Somaliland I passed no other NGO or UN vehicle, very few trucks, and just a few private water tankers. While CARE has already reached over 300,000 people with food, water, cash and other relief supplies, we need to urgently scale up humanitarian assistance.

My second ask is equally critical. Aid workers – both donors and aid agencies - must facilitate the flow of sufficient funding by sharing real-time data, allowing both funds and assistance to be targeted to those who can deliver and to where it is most needed. 

In a context associated with terror and insecurity it sounds sensible to ask for more data, to second-guess whether needs are real and partners are trustworthy. But with needs worsening by the day, this would be the wrong thing to do. We’ll need a higher level of trust from donors. We’ll need their understanding of the realities on the ground. We need to be clear about what money is pledged, and what is already in partner bank accounts. We need to be clear about what staff, tankers, trucks and supplies are available now, and what will arrive in six weeks. 

This may mean donors have to fund humanitarians based on imperfect documentation or rough and ready analysis. At the same time, we in aid organizations need to be open about where we can’t reach people, and share when our hires fail or agreements didn’t come through, or where key staff need to go on leave to prevent burnout. Lives depend on us doing this. 

Somalia is one of the toughest working environments in the world. Violence and conflict of the kind Somalia has faced for decades make it difficult to reach people in need. While access is possible, it’s incredibly difficult. It takes time. We often need to negotiate with many different armed groups and work through local partners who can gain access to the most endangered communities. We have to manage a tremendously complicated balance, being intelligently aware of the long-standing relationships and enmities involved.

It’s easy to caricature these difficulties as ‘corruption’, or ‘failure of the aid system’, but the same clan and family networks that have made peace so hard in Somalia are what is keeping many of the people I met alive. Despite the problems, aid is getting through. A lot has already been done. I saw water points built with Diaspora money, and rehabilitated and extended by CARE last year – these are saving lives now. Sometimes divisive clan structures are uniting in the face of unprecedented hardship, with communities working together to protect the most vulnerable despite the threat to themselves. As we ramp up the response, we need to ensure understanding and trust in our professional staff and partners in the field, so that donors and managers in headquarters understand these realities and don’t delay the response with well-meaning questions or additional paperwork. Because second-guessing will cost lives.


Young girls travel five hours each day to collect water from one of the few remaining sources in their region. ©️ Georgina Goodwin/CARE