Before the drought, Mohammad and his family would have been considered wealthy in their hometown near Kismayo, in southern Somalia. They had a farm and livestock, including 150 cattle and 60 goats. But as the months turned into years with no rain, their animals started to die. Some villages hadn’t seen rain in four years.

In an area currently controlled by Al Shabaab, the Islamist group that dominates much of southern Somalia, conflict was a way of life. Al Shabaab has been waging insurgency against Somalia’s transitional government since 2006, capturing towns during attacks. Civilians often flee to nearby villages during the fighting. When Mohammad’s herd had dwindled to just a few goats, they left.

Traveling by foot for 21 days through stretches of barren desert strewn with animal carcasses—evidence of the severity of the drought—they headed toward the Kenyan border. They carried with them a few belongings and the youngest of their eight children on a donkey cart. Several of Mohammad’s children were sick. The youngest, just two years old, was coughing and had diarrhea. Mohammad suspected he had dysentery and worried. They had met families who were burying children along the way. Like many in his circumstances, Mohammad felt his only hope of finding food, water, and medical care was in the crowded refugee camps of eastern Kenya.

In July 2011 the United Nations declared famine in six regions of Somalia for the first time since 1991. With an estimated 12 million people affected by the crisis, the international community dithered over how to respond. Famine relief in Somalia is more complex than in other countries. With no central government, the map of which groups control which areas is a patchwork quilt. In some areas controlled by Al Shabaab, aid workers were told they were not welcome. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of 17 agencies that the Islamist group has recently banned from the country. Without the help of these agencies distributing food, those in dire need are left hungry.


Derek Sciba/World Concern
Mohammad and his family fled their drought-stricken hometown near Kismayo, Somalia, when their herd had dwindled to just one goat. They traveled by foot to the refugee camps in Kenya.

Against that backdrop, the crisis in Somalia has encouraged aid organizations to use innovative approaches to delivering food using voucher or cash transfer systems. Instead of jostling and waiting in long lines for a sack of grain, families in need are given paper slips they can redeem with local merchants. The merchants are reimbursed for the vouchers via wire transfer.

There are a number of benefits to this approach. Displaced families are able to buy the supplies they need most when they need them. They can shop from the merchants of their choice—typically, within their own clan. Merchants benefit from the increased trade, and in turn buy their products from local suppliers, thereby empowering indigenous networks.

In August 2011, with the international community struggling to respond to the unfolding crisis, the Seattle-based humanitarian group World Concern partnered with Medical Teams International and the Africa Rescue Committee (AFREC) to implement a disaster-response program in the Horn of Africa. In the town of Dhobley, Somalia, a few kilometers from the Kenyan border, they introduced the voucher system. The town serves as a transit point for displaced families like Mohammad’s on their way to the camps in Kenya. Like most of southern Somalia, Dhobley is a place where signs of poverty, desperate need, and conflict are seen on every street. Families that fled their homes with few possessions sit in groups under leafless tree branches, hoping to find shade and rest before continuing their journey. Their bright clothing is the only color visible against the backdrop of a desolate landscape. Garbage is everywhere. The local hospital stands empty, its exterior riddled with bullet holes. People’s faces bear evidence of fear and worry.

World Concern decided to use vouchers in Dhobley after a thorough assessment of the crisis. “There was considerable insecurity in the area, and there were food shortages in Kenya and Somalia,” said Merry Fitzpatrick, a livelihood and food security expert who served as a consultant to World Concern in designing the voucher program in Dhobley. “It wasn’t like we could just go to some warehouse in Kenya and buy a whole bunch of food. And if we did, crossing the border with it would be difficult.”

With limited security, distributing the food could pose a danger to staff and beneficiaries. A food distribution that took place in Dhobley during the assessment resulted in a beneficiary being injured by a soldier, she said.

“Buying and transporting food in bulk in southern Somalia is like writing a death warrant for someone,” said Fitzpatrick. Food is notoriously diverted in places like Somalia, and general food distributions are a magnet for violence and banditry with people fighting for limited resources, she added.


World Concern Staff
Women in Dhobley, Somalia, redeem World Concern vouchers for food from local merchants.

It’s complex to organize agreements with both sides of the conflict for a convoy. By contrast, the voucher system lets Somali traders solve the logistics problems more efficiently.

“In a globalized world, cash moves far faster and more easily than goods,” said Stephen Houston, World Concern’s Horn of Africa disaster program manager.

Vouchers are given out on shopping days, with priority given to those in greatest need—female heads of households, the disabled, and the poorest. Before launching the program, World Concern found out what products vendors could provide and what families would want to buy. One set of vouchers allows families to purchase a two-week supply of rice, beans, sugar, oil, and salt. Another is given for emergency supplies, like blankets, water jugs, cooking pots, and mosquito nets.

Dahabo Ismail received her first food voucher from World Concern shortly after arriving in Dhobley in December. She had lost a child to malnutrition and wondered how she would feed her other six children. Her husband had recently abandoned the family because he could no longer support them.

As she began cooking their first meal, she dialed her husband’s phone number.

“Listen, we have gotten help,” she told him. “There is a full bowl of rice on the fire. Come, come!”

The voucher system allows families like Ismail’s to maintain some dignity.

“They’ve lost so much dignity; then to have to depend on outsiders, nobody likes that. To have to line up in this great big long line, with all this chaos and a guard swinging a big stick at you. It’s dehumanizing,” said Fitzpatrick.

At first, there was concern that the local supply chain would not be able to meet the challenge, but Houston found his conversations with vendors encouraging.

“In the particular case of Somalia, the merchants are exceedingly well connected to the global economic system, aided by the country’s mobile telephone network. Somalia has been described as an economy without a state, and nowhere is that more true than in the markets,” said Houston.


Derek Sciba/World Concern
In July and August 2011, thousands of Somali families like this one loaded up their belongings on donkey carts and left their homes in search of food and water.

The voucher system is not a new idea, explained Houston, but is part of a broader spectrum of interventions described as cash transfers, whereby money is placed directly into the hands of the poor. It has taken time for this approach to catch on.

Then there is the problem of accountability for cash transfers or vouchers. Vouchers represent a compromise between making sure the system is not abused and giving people choices, such as when they shop and from which merchants. In Dhobley, prices for food and nonfood items are negotiated ahead of time, and World Concern monitors the program by interviewing beneficiaries and using “mystery shoppers” to ensure agreed on prices are being maintained and, thus, inflation is avoided.

So far, the system appears to be working. Thousands are being fed each week. Since August, 14,400 vouchers for food have been given out, each feeding a family of six for two weeks. Another 5,600 vouchers for emergency supplies have been distributed as well.

“The meal I had last night was the best I have had in a year. I was satisfied,” said Marium Dahir, a widow and mother of seven. Twenty-four hours after arriving in Dhobley in the back of a truck, Marium received a voucher and was able to buy food. “Even my first night here, life is so much better than it has been before.”


Cathy Herholdt

Cathy Herholdt has served as World Concern’s communications coordinator since 2010. Previously, Herholdt was the editor of a monthly newspaper group in Seattle for seven years.

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