We’ve begun investigating the ongoing famine in Somalia / East Africa. We will be writing more on this topic as we learn more, but for the moment, we wanted to share a few preliminary thoughts:
- This appears to be a very challenging situation for aid organizations, and it is difficult to determine who is in a position to use donations effectively.
- That said, we see some reason to believe that it may be a promising giving opportunity for individual donors. It seems quite possible that donations from individuals are more helpful in a situation like this than in situations like the 2010 Haiti earthquake and 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami.
- At the moment, we recommend that donors wait until we publish more information, though if you’re looking to make your donation immediately, we provisionally recommend giving to Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
The situation, and why it is particularly challenging
On Wednesday, the United Nations declared a famine in the Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions of Somalia. The famine has caused extreme levels of acute malnutrition in southern Somalia. Much of the rest of the Horn of Africa (which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti) is experiencing drought and a food crisis situation as well.
There are estimates that this is the worst famine in the region in 60 years and that it will only worsen in the next 2 months. About 4,000 to 5,000 Somalis per week are traveling across hundreds of miles of desert to reach the Dadaab refugee camps in eastern Kenya. Camps that were supposed to hold 90,000 people now hold about 380,000.
An Islamist militant group called al-Shabaab occupies regions that the famine has hit the hardest. Al-Shabaab has only allowed a few aid organizations to continue operating in southern Somalia and has killed WFP aid workers in the past. With safety concerns present, very few charities have access to the highest-need areas of Somalia.
Why this may be a promising opportunity
Despite the serious challenges, we want to note that
- A consolidated appeal has been posted to Reliefweb and it is currently fairly far from being fully funded. This is a contrast with the recent earthquake in Japan, for which no such appeal was issued.
- We’ve raised questions about whether Haiti relief had/has true room for more funding, due to the logistical difficulties in the aftermath of the earthquake – it seems possible that outside aid and money could have made some situations worse, not better. In this situation, there are concerns about the interactions between aid agencies and Al-Shabaab, but if money reaches refugees (for example, in camps in Kenya), the same concerns about logistics would not seem to apply.
The combination of an unusually dire situation, and the absence of some of the issues that held us back from wholeheartedly recommending that donors give to recent earthquake relief efforts, marks this as a situation worth investigating from a maximizing-impact-of-donations perspective.
What we’ve done so far, and our provisional recommendation
- MSF, which was the highest rated organization in our disaster relief report from Haiti. (We contacted MSF UK since they have published a “donate” page for Somalia).
- World Food Programme, which also received above average marks in our disaster relief report on Haiti.
- CARE, which we have recognized in the past for a couple of unusual (positive) behaviors.
- Oxfam, which CARE recommended we speak to, because Oxfam plays a major role on the ground in the region.
We’ve only spoken briefly with these organizations (and have not yet heard back from WFP) and can’t yet report on the details. As we learn more, we’ll post updates to our blog.
The representative of MSF in the UK with whom we spoke stated to us that
- MSF is working on the ground in Somalia providing care to those affected by the famine.
- The scaling up of aid into Somalia, and to Somali refugees in neighboring countries, is being restricted.
- MSF is urgently calling for obstacles to humanitarian assistance to be removed.
We have recommended in the past that donors support MSF in response to disasters and, for the time being, we recommend MSF again now. However, we continue to investigate the situation and are trying to speak with other organizations, and we will be publishing updates fairly soon.
Josh Rosenberg is a summer intern at GiveWell. He is currently an undergraduate at Pomona College.