This time, the drought has been even 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 the difference in death tolls?
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.
Christopher Barrett, an expert on food aid at Cornell University, is one of many scholars, politicians and aid agencies demanding reform, explained, “A conservative estimate is that we sacrifice roughly 40,000 children’s lives annually because of antiquated food aid policies.” 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.
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 to spend as people want: 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. Coopi uses a system that requires a PIN to withdraw money. 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. Some charities place no restrictions on the cash; others, like WFP, stipulate it can only be spent at certain shops with registered shopkeepers.
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. 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 programmes from 3 percent of the budget in 2011 to 20 percent last year.
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. But if there’s no clean water or health service available, then refugees can’t spend money buying water or medicine.