In Famine, Vouchers Can Be Tickets to Survival (New York Times):
The town of Dhobley, Somalia, sits at the gateway of hell. Just west of Dhobley is the border with Kenya, and the road to Dadaab, which hosts a giant complex of refugee camps; Dhobley has become the last stop in Somalia for a growing stream of desperate, starving people in flight from famine. In Dhobley, as well, drought has ruined crops and felled cows. There is no government to help. The town is a battleground; control of Dhobley has teetered between the Shabaab Islamist militant group and government forces. Shabaab has blocked food aid from entering Dhobley and burned a food truck, but soldiers from all sides have stolen food meant for the destitute. The usual street life of an African village — children playing, women laughing together — has vanished. Gunshots are a constant background noise — “like birds singing,” said Tracy Stover, the emergency coordinator in Dadaab for the humanitarian group World Concern.
It is too dangerous for aid workers to come to Dhobley. Food aid is not getting through. Yet some in Dhobley are eating.
World Concern, a Seattle-based Christian humanitarian group, and its Somali partner, the African Rescue Committee, provide 1,800 families every two weeks with rice, beans, cooking oil, salt and sugar for their tea. The recipients are both residents and families from elsewhere in Somalia who have fled to Dhobley. Another 800 families a week, mostly the displaced who have come to Dhobley, get goods such as mosquito nets, pots, spoons, jerry cans for water, sleeping mats and plastic sheeting.
People are getting these goods very much like they always have: they go shopping. With money from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an association of churches, World Concern provides people with vouchers they can use in the shops of selected local merchants. The merchants were carefully chosen, representing all the clans in Dhobley. The African Rescue Committee distributes the vouchers. When the merchants can travel to the border, they present the vouchers they have collected, which are matched against their duplicates. Each merchant gets a promissory note. The actual reimbursement comes through an electronic transfer from Nairobi to an account the merchants set up in a bank in Dhobley.
Providing hungry people with money, obviously, is no solution if there is no food to be bought. But in Dhobley, the market is working — or would be, if people could afford to buy anything. Although every foodstuff except salt is imported, neither war nor famine has interrupted the supply chain of commercial goods reaching Dhobley. “If they have 3 or 4 days notice, merchants have no difficulty meeting supply,” said Stephen Houston, the disaster manager for World Concern. “We’ve been able to keep the vouchers flowing through almost this whole period.”
For decades, emergency food aid has meant sacks of grain or legumes and huge cans of cooking oil. The United States, by far the world’s largest donor of food aid, began large food donations because the government was buying up surplus crops to keep prices high for producers; sending the grain abroad was a way to keep it off the market. What became the Food for Peace program started in 1954 as the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act.
Shipping food abroad may have been an effective way to support grain prices, but as aid to the hungry, it has always been a deeply flawed idea. It is slow. Once an emergency is recognized, the government must solicit bids, gather the food and put it on a ship. It can take from 4 to 6 months to get food into the mouths of people who need it. Now the United States Agency for International Development and other groups are saving time by shipping food to storage facilities in key places — for example, in Mombasa, Kenya. But even from there, it can take weeks to arrive where it is needed.
Sending food from the United States is also expensive. The U.S. food aid program requires that food be shipped from America, and 75 percent of it must sail on American ships. Half or more of the cost of food aid goes to transport, storage and handling. That percentage is rising as the price of oil goes up and because emergencies increasingly take place inland, in places that are expensive to reach, such as Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia.
Then there is the security problem. Like Dhobley, many places are no-go zones for aid workers for long stretches. When the food trucks do arrive, the crowd that surges around them is chaotic and often violent. The people who need the food most are not the ones likely to succeed in pushing themselves to the front of the line.
Waiting in line for sacks of grain is also demeaning. Since the choice of food sent is largely determined by agribusiness in the United States, the food may not be the most nutritious or familiar to the people who will eat it.
Finally, food aid, while helping individuals, can hurt the economy around them. Tensions between the displaced and the people who host them usually run high — some families in Dhobley are hosting 20 people in their houses, said a Dhobley resident interviewed by Arthur Nazaryan, a photographer who is documenting the crisis in the region. Food aid makes these tensions worse — farmers find their market undercut by free food; local merchants are bypassed. This is a big problem; refugees need communities to host them, and none will do so if they will so clearly lose in the process.
Except for the United States, most nations around the world that donate food for emergencies are moving towards giving cash or vouchers. The change solves many of the problems that affect in-kind food aid. Using cash or vouchers is faster and cheaper. Nothing has to physically move: indeed, as Africa moves to banking by cell phone, the whole process can be accomplished by text. It is more dignified and gives families greater choice. And it is a form of aid that helps a whole village. “One thing you accomplish by using local merchants and splitting the distribution between (the displaced) and the host community is that the benefits get spread around,” says Houston.
In Dhobley, World Concern’s program adds to the town’s economy in two ways. Vouchers go to the displaced and also to local families in the greatest need, with the names chosen by the community. This is also possible with bags of food, of course, but it is less flexible. Just as important, merchants are selling the goods and the money is circulating in the village.