[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.