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A Somali Aid Worker Would Rather Give Out Cash Than Free Food

Degan Ali, a Somali-American humanitarian, describes herself on Twitter as a "social justice activist, Muslima." (Courtesy of Adeso)

In 2011, drought hit Somalia hard, triggering a famine that ultimately killed some 260,000 people. Now, after a poor rainy season, the Food and Agriculture Organization is warning that the country could be on the brink of another famine.

To find out more about the current situation in East Africa, we spoke with Degan Ali, the Somali-American executive director of Adeso (African Development Solutions), a Nairobi-based humanitarian and development organization focusing on aid, education — particularly among nomadic populations — and community-based economic growth. Formerly known as Horn Relief, the organization was founded in the early 1990s by Ali's mother, Fatima Jibrell, in response to their homeland's devastating civil war.

Adeso works in Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan. She spoke with Goats and Soda earlier this month.

Let's talk about your homeland, Somalia. It's been three years since the devastating famine that struck in 2011. How are things now?

Somalia is just getting out of its second famine in recent years, the first one being in the early '90s. We still have a situation where there are millions of people in south Somalia and parts of the north who are food-insecure. There are still more than a million internally displaced people. So the message to the international community would be that yes, things did improve and we left famine conditions in 2013, but we still have an unacceptable number of people who are hungry and food-insecure. We need to start addressing some of the root causes of these problems.

What are some of those root causes?

In the north, it's cycles of drought and hunger that are linked to environmental degradation. Poor range land management and poor natural resource planning — because there was no government for 20 years — as well as larger issues like climate change are expanding the deserts in Africa and all over the world.

It was [my mother's] idea to start putting in these very low-tech physical structures — basically, strategically placed rocks — to harvest rainwater and move it in a way that it spreads out and regenerates the grasslands. We've had so much success with these rock dams since 2001 that the European Commission came to us a few years ago and said they wanted to work with us to scale it up. So now we're implementing a 14 million-euro program on that kind of physical rehabilitation of the range land.

What lessons do you think the international community could learn from Somalia's 2011 famine?

In Somalia, 260,000 people died in the famine, over a billion dollars was spent trying to save them, and now we still have more than 300,000 people living in refugee camps in Dadaab that we are spending money on every single day. If we had only spent half of that money on predictable cash transfers, a safety net program could have supported the same households, in their homes and villages, in the breadbasket of Somalia. That kind of social protection — predictable cash transfers — is very simple, but it requires a new way of thinking.

You think aid organizations should simply give people cash?

Yes, we believe that if the bottom 5 to 10 percent of society in Somalia had more predictable resources, they could make longer-term decisions that would rebuild their asset base and make them more resilient.

For example, say you're a Somali woman, a farmer, experiencing the drought of 2011. And you know that you can get $30 a month for two years for staying in your home. Or you could trek hundreds of miles, risking your children's lives, to try to reach a refugee camp that you think might exist somewhere out there. What would you do? Of course you would hunker down and try to get through the drought, surviving on your predictable $30 a month transfer.

But right now, aid interventions are very unpredictable, so people are not making good decisions. So what we're saying is, let's move from the unpredictable transfers and make them more regular, to build resilience in vulnerable populations.

What's wrong with just sending food to hungry people?

In many cases, it's not an issue of food availability. It's an issue of purchasing power and keeping the local economy going. And it's an issue of empowerment. That word gets used a lot by people who still want to maintain control and tell aid recipients what they need. But what it should ultimately mean is that the person who receives the aid is given as much dignity and control as possible.

But many of us face this dilemma when we see a needy person on the street. If we give them money, how do we know they'll really use it for food?

If you were in the same situation, wouldn't you want people to feel that you are a responsible person? And all the evidence suggests that most of the recipients of these cash transfers make very responsible decisions. All the monitoring and evaluation data indicates that people use the money to purchase not only needed goods and services, but also to pay off debts — which is really interesting. That means they value their social capital and are thinking about the long term, not just their immediate needs. The debt is for meeting immediate needs, which is the normal cycle for pastoralists: They purchase goods during the dry season for food and water on credit, but then they need to pay it back during the rainy season.

I noticed on your Twitter profile that you describe yourself as a "social justice activist, Muslima." How are those connected?

I think my religion heavily informs both my values and the work that I do. In Islam, there is a core principle of mandatory charitable giving called zakat. I think in English you call it tithing. Every single Muslim has to give 2.5 percent of his or her wealth — if they're not using it — to support orphans, hungry and needy people.

Wow, 2.5 percent. If all of us did that...

Exactly. There would be no hunger.

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