In Famine, Vouchers Can Be Tickets to Survival

Friday, October 28, 2011

The town of Dhobley, Somalia, sits at the gateway of hell. Just west of Dhobley is the border with Kenya, and the road to Dadaab, which hosts a giant complex of refugee camps; Dhobley has become the last stop in Somalia for a growing stream of desperate, starving people in flight from famine. In Dhobley, as well, drought has ruined crops and felled cows. There is no government to help. The town is a battleground; control of Dhobley has teetered between the Shabaab Islamist militant group and government forces. Shabaab has blocked food aid from entering Dhobley and burned a food truck, but soldiers from all sides have stolen food meant for the destitute. The usual street life of an African village – children playing, women laughing together – has vanished. Gunshots are a constant background noise – “like birds singing,” said Tracy Stover, the emergency coordinator in Dadaab for the humanitarian group World Concern.

It is too dangerous for aid workers to come to Dhobley. Food aid is not getting through. Yet some in Dhobley are eating.

World Concern, a Seattle-based Christian humanitarian group, and its Somali partner, the African Rescue Committee, provide 1,800 families every two weeks with rice, beans, cooking oil, salt and sugar for their tea. The recipients are both residents and families from elsewhere in Somalia who have fled to Dhobley. Another 800 families a week, mostly the displaced who have come to Dhobley, get goods such as mosquito nets, pots, spoons, jerry cans for water, sleeping mats and plastic sheeting.

People are getting these goods very much like they always have: they go shopping. With money from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an association of churches, World Concern provides people with vouchers they can use in the shops of selected local merchants. The merchants were carefully chosen, representing all the clans in Dhobley. The African Rescue Committee distributes the vouchers. When the merchants can travel to the border, they present the vouchers they have collected, which are matched against their duplicates. Each merchant gets a promissory note. The actual reimbursement comes through an electronic transfer from Nairobi to an account the merchants set up in a bank in Dhobley.

Providing hungry people with money, obviously, is no solution if there is no food to be bought. But in Dhobley, the market is working – or would be, if people could afford to buy anything. Although every foodstuff except salt is imported, neither war nor famine has interrupted the supply chain of commercial goods reaching Dhobley. “If they have 3 or 4 days notice, merchants have no difficulty meeting supply,” said Stephen Houston, the disaster manager for World Concern. “We’ve been able to keep the vouchers flowing through almost this whole period.”

Source: The New York Times (link opens in a new window)