The GiveWell Blog

Somalia / East Africa famine relief donations

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).

Details follow.

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

We cross-referenced the lists at InterAction and FTS with our list of disaster relief charities, and chose to contact the following:

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.


  • Ian Turner on July 26, 2011 at 9:49 am said:

    Interesting. Do you have any data/thoughts on how this compares as a giving opportunity (especially in terms of cost-effectiveness) to non-emergency donations such as to VillageReach?

  • Josh on July 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm said:


    Thanks for the question. There are a couple of different aspects of this issue that we have not yet resolved.

    First, we don’t yet have detailed information about what charities are doing, how much they’re spending and what the likely impact will be. While it’s possible that this will provide donors interested in maximizing impact with a great donation opportunity we don’t yet have enough information to say one way or the other.

    Without doing a careful cost-effectiveness estimate, this event does seem like a good giving opportunity holistically. Charities have the opportunity to save lives by helping people get an essential resource for a limited period of time.

    Second, aside from the question of cost-effectiveness, there’s a question of donation fungibility and whether donating money will increase the amount charities spend on this disaster. Many of the organizations working on this disaster have significant unrestricted assets and can allocate funds to this disaster if they determine that doing so is warranted. So, it’s possible that a gift targeted to this disaster is really supporting the overall activities an organization is running. This is something we also hope to learn more about as we further research this event.

  • Fynn Bauer on July 31, 2011 at 1:19 pm said:

    Let us join hands to save lifes in Somalia.

  • Phil Steinmeyer on August 1, 2011 at 11:02 am said:

    One charity that’s probably worth a closer look in famine relief efforts is Project Peanut Butter.

    Their site:

    Lengthy article about them in the online version of the local paper:

    My knowledge doesn’t go much deeper than the article (2nd link) and having heard the name and maybe the pitch a bit in recent years. (I’m in St. Louis County, close to this organization’s HQ, so that may account for it a bit.)

    Anyways, what I like, from my very limited knowledge:

    * Run by a doctor
    * Who seems to have approached things in at least a semi-medical style
    * Run on the cheap
    * The production side seems to be done in Africa (improves bang for the buck, presumably)
    * Per their own website, they have made at least one recent delivery to Somalia

    Anyways, this is not an endorsement, but it would be nice if GiveWell could take a closer look at this charity among other possibilities for addressing the current famine and/or food issues generally.

  • Phil Steinmeyer on August 1, 2011 at 11:06 am said:

    Quick correction/addition:

    PPB was founded by a (male) doctor and/or his wife (who does not appear to be a doctor). It’s not clear to me who runs it officially. But it seems that the doctor is at least very closely involved, and he has experience working on malnutrition efforts in Africa.

    (This is based on info in the 2 links in my previous comment.)

  • Tom (Giving What We Can) on August 3, 2011 at 10:48 am said:

    I posted this to the GiveWell email list and got some interesting answers, and thought it might be worth adding here:

    I’m doing research on disaster relief for Giving What We Can, and am
    just looking into the current East African famine. I’ve read with
    interest most, though I’m sure not all, of the GiveWell pages and
    posts on natural disasters generally and this famine specifically (
    ). But I’d like to find out how many people individuals charities can
    feed for how long for a set amount of money, and how long is
    sufficient to ‘save’ people (or more helpfully restore their life
    expectancy to a specific number). Can anyone give me any help on this
    – pointers, answers, dead ends, places to look or people to ask?

    It’s obviously difficult, but it seems it should be
    possible to find figures – even very rough ones – on what set amounts
    of money can achieve, such as how many people individuals charities
    can feed for how long for how long per dollar or pound or how long is
    sufficient to ‘save’ people (or more helpfully restore their life
    expectancy to a specific number). Likewise I was hoping someone knows of places where people can give to these causes with
    their money actually increasing the amount spent on them – even though
    that raises the problems of fungibility, etc. that GiveWell covers so
    well. I’ve found some organisations making claims that $1 can feed
    someone for 1 day (Edesia), or 5 in one case (International Crisis
    Aid), but I’m not sure how reliable this is. Edesia’s product is referenced at as what the first food shipments to Somalia contained, so that gives me some confidence in it. Thanks for the Project Peanut Butter reference Phil, I shall try getting in touch with them, unless of course someone at GiveWell already is?

  • Ashley on August 4, 2011 at 8:45 am said:

    I’d really like to donate but I want to make sure it goes to an organization that is in a position to provide immediate help. I understand aid organizations are having a hell of a time getting food to those who need it. Which organization is already there, poised to help, already feeding these poor people? I just don’t want my donation to end up in a coffer, however good the charity may be, waiting for disbursement because the charity can’t get on the ground due to the militant situation there. Please help. Thanks!

  • Phil,

    After taking a look at the website, here are a couple of questions we’d ask PPM were we to analyze it further:
    1. Is the bottleneck on food aid that charities don’t have enough food in storage or that they don’t have the operational capacity to distribute the food? Because of significant logistical constraints in Somalia like al-Shabaab, it may be that charities have more food than they can reasonably distribute.

    2. We would be interested to learn how PPB determines that a charity’s greatest need is more food: are they receiving requests? Doing independent evaluations?

    3. How does PPB determine which organizations receive its supplies? It may be difficult to oversee how a charity distributes food as an independent provider of food. Food may fall into the hands of the most powerful members of a region or the leaders of a family. Does PPB have any mechanisms in place to ensure that the food gets to the people who need it most?

    For the time being, our instincts are to start by researching organizations responding directly on the ground and asking them about their needs. If they indicate supply of the type of food that PPB provides as a significant need, we’d be more likely to investigate PPB further.

  • Ashley,

    We are still working on an updated recommendation. We hope to have more information for you in the near future.

  • Josh, any update on which charity is having the most impact/success in Somalia?

  • Alexis on August 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm said:

    Any updates on where to donate? I really want to help. Thanks!

  • Sam Gardner on August 13, 2011 at 12:05 pm said:

    On Somalia, the situations is challenging, but most of the established actors have a rather good reputation. However, they will work in Somalia, and if you expect everything to run as if it would be Sweden is delusional.
    Most partners are bound by the Sphere standards or the IASC humanitarian standards. This makes it possible to evaluate their work.

  • Eric Friedman on August 15, 2011 at 6:28 pm said:

    It seems like GiveWell’s approach is not especially suited for evaluating charities for disaster relief. By the very nature of disaster relief activities, charities have to choose whether and how to act before there are randomized controlled trials or other studies to assess how cost effective their interventions will be. Further, charities have to start acting (or decide not to act) before they know how much funding they will receive for a particular disaster.

    An alternative approach might be to identify a few charities that are exceptionally good at disaster relief. When a disaster happens, GiveWell could make charity recommendations based on the subset of those organizations with a strong presence in that area.

    But even that is not enough; a second criteria is needed. The charity should also have a track record of behaviors that maximize impact. This is because of the fungibility of money—donors who give to disaster relief efforts might implicitly be funding the everyday activities of the charity. So those activities need to be impact maximizing also.

    The logic behind these two criteria probably overlaps with the reasoning for GiveWell’s provisional recommendation of Doctors Without Borders. When GiveWell is expressing a preference among multiple charities without the availability of rigorous quantitative analysis, it might be good for GiveWell to articulate a set of qualitative criteria for making the judgments.

  • Natalie on September 1, 2011 at 4:29 pm said:

    Hi Eric, we do use the two suggested criteria among others. More at our recent update on this topic.

  • We are a group of students from Temple University located in Philadelphia, PA. Currently, we are working on a project, Feeding Africa, which is a part of the “10-10-10” Social Networking Project run by Dr. Jean.

    As a part of this project, we are collecting donations to help people in the Horn of Africa.
    Our group is working to help support and raise awareness of the people starving in the Horn of Africa region. This area is currently dealing with the worst draught in 60 years, which has resulted in a major famine crisis. This catastrophe, along with constant war, has affected over 13 million people and is largely ignored by the mainstream media. In Somalia alone, a child dies in every 6 minutes.

    It is quite sad to see how the media is ignoring this issue even though it is the worst catastrophic events we recently witnessed in Haiti and Japan. According to the US AID, in 2004, 2 million people were affected by the Tsunami in Indonesia; in 2010, the earthquake in Haiti affected 3 million people. Unlike any of these events, 13 million people are being affected by the current famine in the Horn of Africa. People need to be aware of this issue. Since our media is not doing a great job in making an awareness of this issue, we students decided to step up and hope that many people will join us in helping people in Africa.

    Our goal is to not only raise awareness and educate people about this famine, but also raise money to support the United Nation’s World Food Programme and their efforts to feed the people of this region. Through our “Change for a Change” coin drive campaign and other events we would like to feed at least 2,000 children using the WFP’s $1 feeds 4 children initiative.

    We hope that our little effort will inspire others to step up and help these people in Africa whom are in great need of help. Couple dollars can save a child’s life. Any suggestion for fund raising will be greatly appreciated. If you have any question, please feel free to contact us at Here is the link for our “10-10-10” Social Networking Project:

Comments are closed.