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@sanjayguptaCNN “the smell in the air is an acrid sweetness of the body actually digesting itself” #endhunger #HornofAfrica #famine.

[Editor's Note :- Last night, I sat on my sofa watching CNN's Witness to Famine. I've watched many CNN special reports from the same sofa in the past; the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, to this - the famine spreading throughout East Africa.

Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I feel disconnected. But the overarching emotion I feel this time is helplessness. My previous donation doesn't seem or feel enough. Sometimes I wonder if it would ever get down to the ground. Maybe it would get swallowed up by administrative and logistical fees. I'll never know, but one thing I do know is that a mother should never have to smell that "acrid sweetness" of her child's body digesting itself out of hunger.

Over the next few weeks, we hope to publish articles and interviews from those who are/were on the ground to get their perspectives on what's truly going on beyond the snapshots we digest through various media outlets.

In the meantime, here are five organizations worth looking into if you'd like to donate funds or time to aid relief efforts on the ground. - Lola Akinmade Åkerström]

Médecins Sans Frontières

MSF, or Doctors Without Borders as they are commonly known in the US and Canada, was created in 1971 out of experiences from the Biafra secession in current-day Nigeria. The organization was founded by doctors and journalists who felt that the need for medical care outweighed considerations of politics, creed and political boundaries.

MSF operates in some of the toughest countries in the world, including Chechnya, Somalia and the Central African Republic, providing medical relief, water, and sanitation projects to victims of violence, famine and other disasters regardless of background.

The organization is militantly apolitical and refuses to enter into arrangements for limited access with governments of the countries it works in.

This can often make their operations more difficult to arrange, but this also guarantees the group a degree of recognition as a nonpolitical relief organization while occasionally saves it from being targeted by hostile governments. In 1999, MSF was awarded the Nobel prize for their work in assisting victims of crises and raising awareness of humanitarian issues.

In Somalia, MSF is providing medical assistance, particularly in the south of the country. In neighboring Kenya, the organization is working in the Dadaab refugee camp to provide medical services and treatment for malnutrition to the thousands of refugees coming over the border from Somalia.

Visit the MSF website here, or donate here.

World Food Program (WFP)

The WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian NGO and was established under the United Nations to address the challenges of hunger. On average, the WFP provides food to approximately 90 million people a year.

Compared to many other NGOs involved in relief work, the WFP’s focus is – unsurprisingly – on food alone. It’s useful to think of them as doing the heavy lifting of moving giant amounts of food into places where it is desperately needed.

If you’ve seen photographs of giant C-130 Hercules aeroplanes unloading mountains of blue and white bags, odds are good that it was a WFP operation.

While the WFP occasionally sources food for distribution from inside a country, such as sorghum from north and central Sudan to feed the south, their typical role is moving and distributing food aid across international boundaries. With their food distribution muscle comes similarly large economies of scale – it costs approximately 25 cents (USD) to provide a meal to a school-going child in one of their relief programs.

When moving such large amounts of food aid into areas as unstable as Somalia, the WFP also makes a natural target for local militia commanders looking to seize supplies. According to the NY Times, a leaked UN report alleged that as much as half of the WFP aid to the region was seized or misdirected by corrupt local officials.

As a UN organ, the WFP necessarily works with local political actors, exposing it to corruption to a greater degree than many non-governmental organizations. Nevertheless, as a leviathan amongst relief agencies, their ability to move food aid in huge volumes to affected areas is unparalleled.

Visit the WFP website here, or donate here.

International Rescue Committee (IRC)

The IRC was founded in 1942, and was involved in its early days with food aid to West Berlin and later, assisting refugees after the defeat of the French by the North Vietnamese in 1954. In 1962, the IRC extended operations to Africa and is currently involved in humanitarian assistance projects in the newly-formed Southern Sudan, Somalia and thirteen other nations ranging from the Central African Republic to Zimbabwe.

In the horn of Africa, the work of the IRC currently includes medical screening and food assistance for refugees arriving at Kenya’s gargantuan Dadaab refugee camp, as well as assisting in providing water and water-supply systems in Ethiopia and central Somalia.

The IRC’s mission is to be onsite at disasters within 72 hours to provide relief. Unlike many other aid organizations, the IRC has a commitment to longer-term solutions and assisting refugees who have been relocated to the United States with integration.

The IRC website sums up the organization’s operational ethos in the words “We commit to stay as long as we are needed.” The IRC is also one of the most cost-efficient relief NGOs that you can place your money with. 92% of their funds go directly to programs, and only 8% is spent on administration and fundraising.

Visit the IRC website here, or donate here.

International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC)

The ICRC is the grandaddy of relief organizations. Established in 1863, The organization has won three Nobel peace prizes, and is recognized in the Geneva conventions as a neutral party in conflict. It is a war crime to target a Red Cross/Crescent vehicle or facility, or to impersonate one.

The ICRC’s mandate is primarily centered on the care of combatants and civilians in conflict zones, regardless of their affiliation. In Somalia, the group is engaged in water, sanitation, and medical projects, as well as training participants in the conflict in principles of humanitarian law.

While the focus of the ICRC is primarily on conflict situations and the needs of those affected by war, the roots of the Somali famine and political situation in the decades-long civil war in the country has meant that the organization is working extensively with those suffering the consequences of food insecurity.

Visit the ICRC website here, or make a donation here.


Unlike the various other independent bodies covered here, USAID is a federal organization established by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to implement development assistance on behalf of the US government. USAID’s mandate includes disaster and poverty relief, technical cooperation on matters such as disease control, socio-economic development and lately, work on environmental issues with partner countries.

Controversially, the organization can also be called on to assist US military work in theaters of war to try and win over local populations with aid.

This, unlike many other aid organizations, has meant that USAID has occasionally found itself being used as a tool of US foreign policy more than as a genuinely impartial aid agency.

In 1990, in retaliation for a ‘no’ vote by the Yemeni ambassador to US attempts to secure consensus for the use of force against Iraq, all USAID development assistance was pulled from the country.

Despite its partisan nature, USAID is a giant in logistical terms, having spent $580 million on relief to 4.6 million affected in the horn of Africa in 2011 alone. USAID was also responsible for setting up the worldwide Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), which is used by aid groups the world over to predict upcoming food crises. Whether the world acts in time is, sadly, an entirely unrelated affair.

Visit the USAID website here, or donate here.

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About The Author

Richard Stupart

Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.

  • Guest

    It is so overwhelming. The other day, I had a friend tell me that he thinks helping those suffering in the Horn of Africa is futile.

    “If we feed them now, there will just be more mouths to feed in ten years when the next famine hits.”

    Apathy is as tempting as it is insidious. 

  • Coleen Monroe

    (Darnit I hit the button below too early)

    It is so overwhelming. The other day, I had a friend tell me that he thinks helping those suffering in the Horn of Africa is futile.”If we feed them now, there will just be more mouths to feed in ten years when the next famine hits.”Apathy is as tempting as it is insidious. I often struggle to feel like I am helping at all, even with donating and raising awareness. The people in this region of the world and other developing ones don’t need handouts, but they do need creative people from their communities and the world working together to find long-term solutions.

    • Richard

      I’m doing a Masters degree on famine and the media, and it’s interesting to see that the idea of famines as some unpreventable natural disaster still remains in so many people’s attitudes towards it. 

      In truth, and there is an excellent book by Amartya Sen in this regard, famine is human produced. It takes poor economic policy, a failure of markets and a lack of decent, accountable government to stop famine. Unfortunately, Somalia at present has none of these. 

      Where it gets difficult is trying to make people care about the long term fixes, and generating the international will to assist in creating a stable Somalia. That, sadly, seems to be a much harder sell.

      • Michael A Zanette

        I’m a nearing the completion of my International Development and Globalization degree and I can certainly attest to richardstupart’s point. Famine, poverty, etc are all intimately linked are not fixable via aid donations. It truly is too bad that the structural causes for these catastrophes are not properly understood nor addressed by most people (although often by no fault of their own..). 

  • Nick Rowlands

    Good, practical round-up. 92% of IRC funds go directly to projects? That’s an astonishing figure! Do you know how they can manage to be so cost-efficient?

    • Richard

      I was wondering about it. I can’t find a definite answer on the website, but thin that it may have to do with subcontracting much of the logistics, to increase efficiency vs having to do it all yourself. It may also be that admin costs only really rise with increased donations up to a point, beyond which a well-organised admin core can work effectively with ten million dollars as much as with a hundred million. That’s just a theory though.

      • kinuganda

        Actually it’s a completely bogus statistic. IRC is notoriously bureaucratic, even relative to other international NGOs – all of these orgs fudge the stats by billing most of their HQ and overhead to one ‘program’ or another, so even executive lunches in NYC are ‘program costs’ for Somalia if Somalia is discussed.  Moreover, private donations are called ‘unrestricted funds’, meaning they don’t have to account for their use – so private donations almost never reach program countries, they’re used for bureaucratic overhead. Institutional funding is used in-country, because that’s what they have to account for. UN agencies are even worse, they seldom implement anything themselves, they just swallow money. So do a half hour’s research on the Web, cut out the middleman and give to local organisations based in the Horn who actually work on the ground!

        • Richard

          You just broke my heart man :)

          That said, if you wanted to donate to a local organisation in the Horn, do you have any suggestions? I would be a little nervous about inadvertently ending up on the US State Dept watch list for funding some random group they have on their terrorism watch list. Well, not me specifically, but people who are US citizens should perhaps bear that in mind?

          • kinuganda

            Sorry about that, but reality hurts! Just to clarify, I have nothing against people who give money to those orgs, some of them do some good things, it’s just sad that people are misled into thinking most of their dollar will actually be used directly to help people. I don’t want to recommend a specific local group in case I get accused of vested interest (though I’m not connected with any groups there), but a bit of creative Googling (e.g. ‘Somalia organization’) will lead you to some – and then look for mentions of them on other sites – if they are not legit then someone somewhere has probably said so. Many in the world now can now receive donations by Paypal or through a US- or Europe-based connection. On the watch list concern, you could look that up on a government web site, or you could search for US-based tax-deductible organisations that are smaller than the big ones. Usually the best are those focused on a particular issue or place. Hope that helps!

          • Richard

            That’s super – thanks so much for the advice. It’d certainly be worth people’s time to invest in learning about smaller groups engaged in work in the region. I’d also add that, where well-chosen, many local organisations will be there long after most of the big groups have moved on. Assistance to the efficient and well-planned ones can mean an impact that reaches beyond the scope of an individual disaster.

          • Paul

            I only just came across this article. I’m not sure Richard, why you backtracked on the point of the article based on someone’s comment. There are two sides to every story. From a UK perspective, the opinions expressed in these comments are the same arguments you read in tabloids and those are based on a conservative view of the world that is essential against spending money on developing countries – ‘charity begins at home.’

            I work for a small (12 people) Swiss NGO and I can tell you now that small NGOs are not more cost-effective. There are many reasons but I’ll give you a couple of examples. Generally, if you buy 12 cans of beer then it costs less per can than if you buy 1. If you go to an industrial supermarket and buy 1000 it costs less still. It is the same with NGOs. A large NGO can buy supplies for many projects across (for example) East Africa, while a smaller NGO may just be funding one. Likewise, smaller NGOs only have the money to employ one (or fewer) members of staff to work on fundraising. A large NGO will commit sums of money that are huge in comparison but represent a much smaller percentage of their funds. But in return, they are able to employ the best fundraisers and apply for grants that require a lot of time, skill and energy – from the EU for example. When these bids are successful then the return on investment is huge. It is simply untrue that smaller NGOs have lower costs.

            The other thing is that poverty and equality are essentially products of political and economic systems and the most fundamental changes are caused by changes to those systems. Advocacy is therefore very important and it is the large NGOs that are sitting at the tables of international conferences.

            Additionally, remember that cost-effectiveness isn’t the only measure of efficiency.

            It would be interesting to know what you think about the subject two years on. I know from my life history that my views on things change quite quickly.

  • theregjoe

    just give out all your small change. you don’t use it anyway

  • negrodamus2

    No disrespect but I would like to send a team of Doctors to sterilize those imbeciles.  Stop having babies, now!!!! Will some tell them or at least cut the process with a little snip here and there.  This may sound crude and rude but look at the consequences of not doing this at all.    How many more have to die in vain just to get their rocks off.  Do the male population first.

    • Richard

      No disrespect? Riiiiight. Fortunately policy is not made by people like you. It’s made by people who moved past fantasies of forced population control with the end of World War II.

    • guest

      Maybe it’s better for us Americans to change or life style, we use 85% of resources, 500 liters of water per day, spend billions of dollars on video games, weight loss programs, cosmetics, cigaretes, and alcohol. Why can we just live a little simpler way of life so the people in Africa could live just a little bit better.

But the 12-year-olds are adults now. We can see the fires. We are not weak.
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