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Using cash-based interventions to prevent famine in Somalia

22 Aug 2017


An Ethiopian woman in the Haar-Haar IDP settlement explains what motivated her displacement to Somalia. UNHCR reports that women and children represent 84 per cent of the drought-displaced population since November 2016. OCHA Photo/Jordi Casafont Torra

Somalia is facing a prolonged drought that has left 6.7 million people—more than half of the population—in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Drought conditions are deepening following poor and below-normal Gu (monsoon) rains, which started late April and ended in early May instead of June in most parts of the country. Cereal production across Somalia is expected to be 40 to 50 per cent below normal, and there is now an elevated risk of famine.

The use of cash-based assistance continues to be central to the famine-prevention strategy in Somalia, building on the lessons learned from the famine response in 2011. Giving cash or vouchers to the most vulnerable people, as opposed to providing aid in kind, has enabled drought-affected families to decide how to meet their most pressing needs, while supporting local markets. In Somalia, these markets are highly resilient, supported by complex supply networks. This, in turn, has helped to sustain the local economy.

Cash-based interventions have been instrumental in enabling an early and rapid scale-up of the response, thanks to the experience acquired by humanitarian partners in recent years and the generous contributions of the international community. In May, more than 80 per cent of food assistance was delivered through cash and vouchers, and NGO and UN partners in Somalia reached an estimated 3 million people with cash and vouchers, up from 2.4 million people in April. In May, US$48 million was disbursed directly to people.

Understanding recipients’ experience of cash assistance, i.e., how they used the money and whether they were able to access the goods and services they needed to meet their most pressing needs, is key to ensuring the continual improvement of cash programming, and to inform priorities across the response. Most cash partners have built feedback mechanisms into their programmes. A DFID-funded call centre in Mogadishu has contacted more than 32,000 recipients of cash transfers to understand their experience. The data shows that recipients typically spend about 75 per cent of cash on food and 25 per cent on non-food needs, including household items. They also pay off short-term debt and health-care costs.


Using cash to save lives in Somalia is possible because markets continue to function, despite ongoing violence associated with non-State armed groups or regional and inter-clan conflicts. Despite the increase in the prices of local staples since late 2016, regular monitoring of market prices and functioning across the country shows that market-based responses remain feasible and appropriate across Somalia.


Cash interventions can also help to overcome access challenges. Access to people in some parts of Somalia, including in some areas worst affected by drought, is hampered by insecurity and logistical challenges. This makes electronic cash transfers through e-payments, or through mobile money, an optimal solution. According to a 2017 World Bank report, more than 88 per cent of Somalis over age 16 have a mobile phone and 73 per cent of Somalis use mobile money. Cash transfers benefitting more than 600,000 people were delivered through mobile money in June. The World Food Programme’s partner agencies and NGOs deliver assistance using the SCOPE card. Recipients are registered using biometric data and receive a smart card that can be remotely loaded with cash or with food vouchers, which are redeemed via a network of participating vendors.


The cash response in Somalia can now be visualized on OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange platform, which is updated each month.



OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer Jordi Casafont Torra speaks with an Ethiopian woman who fled to Somalia with her two children to find assistance. OCHA Photo/Jordi Casafont Torra

Jordi Casafont Torra, an OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer based in Geneva, shares his experience about a mission he undertook to Gaalkacyo—a mid-size town of about 270,000 people in central Somalia. Gaalkacyo has experienced recurring conflict due to long-standing land disputes, and it is currently affected by severe drought.

There are now dozens of improvised makeshift settlements on the outskirts of Gaalkacyo, as the extreme drought conditions forced people to abandon rural areas.

Jordi outlines his discussion with Fatima (not her real name)—a beneficiary of cash-based assistance in Haar-Haar IDP settlement, near Gaalkacyo—and he describes the camp’s conditions.

The terrain is harsh; there are no trees, just a horizon with random brush piles. Shelters are made of sticks and branches, wrapped with pieces of cloth and plastic, and circular fences made of deadwood delineate some privacy for each household. Most people in the settlement are women and children. This reflects the countrywide pattern, with 84 per cent of displaced people being women and children (UNHCR Protection and Return Monitoring Network, May 2017).

As a coping strategy, families have split in order to minimize risk and maximize resources. Men and older boys remain in their villages to protect the family livelihoods, or they walk long distances with their livestock in search of water and pastures. Women and young children move to urban areas in search of aid. The elderly and those unable to travel have no other option but to stay behind.

Fatima is a widow from Ethiopia. She crossed the border into Somalia in April with her two children to find assistance. Fatima is a beneficiary of the cash-based interventions in Gaalkacyo, and she has an electronic card (a SCOPE card) from the World Food Programme that is refilled with $95 every month to purchase food.

When asked how this drought compares with last year’s severe El Niño-related drought, Fatima said: "The current drought is much worse, and I had no other option than leaving after losing the animals that sustained my life.”

She explains that upon arriving in Gaalkacyo, people in the Haar-Haar IDP settlement helped her to build her shelter. But she is worried that the rains will flood her shelter, and she pleads for clothes, kitchen utensils and blankets. Some critical assistance is being provided, but basic services, such as access to water and sanitation facilities, protection services or learning spaces for children, are not available in the camp.

Fatima has no intention to leave the camp. “I have nowhere to go back to,” she said.

The crude reality is that hunger and destitution in the Horn of Africa have no borders. As “climate refugees”, Fatima and her children are likely to remain in this camp for much longer unless further support is made available beyond the strictly life-saving aid they have received.