As global famine aid comes up short, Somalis abroad step up
Spirit of humanity
Every year, Somalis abroad send about $1.4 billion back home – almost a quarter of the country’s GDP. As organizations like the United Nations warn that famine could spread, those remittances are an especially vital form of aid.
Johannesburg—Long before major international pleas for anti-drought funding in Somalia began, or images of the gaunt and hungry started to circulate in the world’s newspapers, Amir Sheikh knew exactly what was happening. For months, the news had been coming to him by Facebook and WhatsApp, by email and over scratchy phone lines from Mogadishu: the country was parched, people were dying. And if money didn’t arrive – lots of it, and soon – things were going to get worse very quickly.
So Mr. Sheikh, who heads up the Somali Community Board of South Africa, did what he always does when he receives news like this from home. He sounded the alarm.
He sent volunteers to talk to business owners in “Little Mogadishu,” a street in Johannesburg’s Mayfair neighborhood crowded with Somali coffee shops and internet cafes, and gathered money collected by small groups of concerned Somali women. He began asking restaurants about hosting fundraisers and reached out to other migrant communities in the city for help.
“It is not hard for us to reach people in Somalia because it is where we come from,” he says. “We are locals, we are not afraid.”
In February, the United Nations declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and warned that three more nearby countries in the midst of their own severe droughts – Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen – were precariously close. To stop them from tipping over into catastrophe, the agency’s humanitarian chief said, it needed to raise $4.4 billion by July. Meanwhile, the US, which supports almost one-fourth of the UN's funding, is reportedly seeking deep program cuts.
“There are people [in need] who we are not assisting because of funding in every country we work in,” says Challiss McDonough, the senior regional communications officer for the United Nations World Food Programme in East Africa. In Somalia alone, she estimates, the agency needs $209 million more than it currently has in its coffers in order to reach the 6.2 million people at risk of famine.
But in a world worn down by what UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien recently called “the largest humanitarian crisis” since the second World War, there is one group that has never stopped giving – Somalia’s diaspora.
A country of 10.8 million people, cut apart by nearly three decades of civil war, Somalia has one of the world’s most scattered populations: at least 2 million people born in the country now living beyond its borders, to say nothing of their children and grandchildren. But beyond its size, the vast constellation of Somali communities spread from Minneapolis to London to Johannesburg stands out for another characteristic: generosity.
Every year, Somalis abroad send about $1.4 billion home – or a quarter of the country’s GDP – making them Somalia’s largest provider of aid. Somali-Americans send an average of $3,800 per year, for example, while Somalis in Germany send more than $4,000 and those in Saudi Arabia send about $1,500.
And that money travels through highly intimate channels, almost always moving directly from donor to recipient with few or no people in between.
“People know exactly what happens to the money they send because they can just call up their relatives in the village and ask what’s happening and where it’s gone,” says Ayan Ashur, the ambassador to Britain for Somaliland, a self-governing breakaway state that is recognized internationally as an autonomous region in Somalia’s north. “It’s a more accountable way to donate because it’s so personal.”
That also means that in times of crisis like the current drought, Somalis are among the country’s most efficient and effective sources of relief, able to identify need, move money, and analyze impact faster than almost anyone else.
During Somalia's 2011 famine, for instance, personal social networks – including diaspora connections and remittances – became a crucial factor in how well people and communities coped with the disaster, as international aid groups struggled to respond, according to a report from Tufts University's Feinstein International Center. The better connected you were to people who weren’t experiencing the same crisis, in short, the more likely you were to survive it.
But that also meant that the diaspora, like other aid groups, was at times unable to reach those who need help the most – the marginalized and poorly connected, as well those living in areas controlled by the Islamist militant group Al Shabaab. More than 250,000 Somalis died during the 2011 famine, the worst of the 21st century; half of them were children. And Somalis' ability to send money home has become increasingly uneven over the past few years, with several banks across the US, Europe, and Australia refusing to make the transfers into the country for fears of being penalized for inadvertently supporting terrorism or money laundering.
Still, for many in the region, waiting for other forms of aid is hardly an option. The United Nations has blamed slow international response, in part, for the 2011 tragedy, and is anxious not to see history repeat itself. Today, 20 million people are living in drought-hit areas of Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and Nigeria, according to the UN, which warned last month that it had raised just one-tenth of the funds required to prevent famine.
“Internationally, it took so long and there is still so little” in the way of aid in Somaliland, Ms. Ashur says. “The diaspora has been reacting since November, where we only saw the international community begin to come in around March. I think it’s fair to say this situation would be so much worse if this diaspora had not been active.”
For Brooklyn-based fashion designers Idyl and Ayaan Mohallim and a group of their Somali-American friends, seeing the news from home was like hearing the echoes of history.
“This cycle of famines and droughts has been going on for our entire lives,” Idyl Mohallim says. “We already know too well what the consequences are if help doesn’t get to Somalia sooner rather than later.”
So in early March, she and her friends cobbled together a short video explaining the need for aid in the country, and threw it onto a hastily-assembled GoFundMe fundraising page. They circulated it among friends and family, and by early April, they had raised more than $25,000.
Part of the reason for the fundraiser’s brisk success, Ms. Mohallim speculates, was the fact that the organizers could vouch personally for the charities they had decided to donate their funds to – groups they had worked and traveled with in the past, and whose work they knew well.
“I think people want to be involved but just have no idea how, or feel there’s no way they can change a crisis like that,” she says. “We are giving people both a way to take part and that accountability that the money is going where it needs to be.”
But like Sheikh in Johannesburg and Ashur in London, the organizers don’t feel the work they’ve done is anything newsworthy.
For Somalis, after all, this kind of charity is the norm. In their community, they say, not giving what you can, whenever you can, would be the glaring exception.
“Culturally, this is all very ordinary to us,” Mohallim says.