Critical questions for drought relief

Francis Omondi, chair of CMS Africa, has been leading Christian community work in the Horn of Africa for two decades – through more than one drought. His on-the-ground experience reveals that voices like his are too often ignored.

The east African drought, the worst in 60 years, is proving to be a stern testing ground for the willingness of Christian humanitarian agencies to empower local organisations. It’s a well worn saying, “Give poor people a fish and they will eat for a day: teach them to fish and they will feed themselves for lifetime.” Are they doing enough to make this a reality?

When Joel Edwards from Micah Challenge was invited to share a Thought for Day on BBC Radio 4 (30 July) he raised questions that demand answers about the crisis on the Horn of Africa.

“We should ask why these people were left to languish for so long until the problem became so acute. And it’s a good time to talk about our relationship to God’s creation and the environment. In the last decade we have had four major droughts in the Horn of Africa. Given that each had ample warning and opportunities for faster responses, we should ask why we waited until the deluge of suffering undermined our usefulness to help.”

He continued, “No one responding to the tragic events in East Africa can do so without asking critical questions.”

One question I want to explore here is the local initiative in response to the crisis. Western media coverage often skews disaster response in unhelpful ways. What inevitably captures media attention is what Western NGOs are doing while the effort of locals is ignored and remains invisible.

Outside NGOs tend to exaggerate the impact of what they do to justify their work to their supporters. The Sheepfold Ministries (TSM) is an indigenous community which has worked in the Horn of Africa region for over 20 years now. During this time it has lived alongside communities hit by a series of disasters. The current crisis is no exception.

In July TSM, with the help of its partners, distributed food to 2,000 households, many of them poor Christians identified as being in special need by Christian pastors or members of the local community identified by tribal elders. As I write a second round of feeding has just been completed, covering many more families.

Again it sounds a cliché, but hardest hit are the poorest and weakest. In north-east Kenya this means two particular categories of people: children from poor families and poor Christians. Why? It’s simply that Christians are a minority in this part of Kenya and despite the best of intentions, they tend to be last to get help. Meeting their needs is an important ‘front’ in the battle against the ravages of drought.

Each family received 10kg of maize meal, plus beans and oil, food supplies, enough to last at least a month. One the same day as the first TSM distribution a consignment of government food was brought to a neighbouring village. Four hundred people got just 10 bags of maize and five bags of beans, enough for just a couple of days. You can guess there was a stampede to lay hold on something to take home!

Even though Christians in this community were our primary focus, we reached out to help people who for different reasons were left out of the government food ration. Muslims who received from us responded with questions. One fellow asked directly, “Where did this food come from?” We said, “Christians from across the world have given it and we are sharing it with you.” He replied, “The Christians have helped us, where are our Muslim brothers?”

What a testimony this has been especially that it was given with no strings attached. This has helped in a tremendous way to built up the confidence among local believers in a previously hostile environment.

The scale of the need has drawn many Christian agencies to help. To be honest, this can easily be a mixed blessing. Many NGOs actually retard the capacity of local people to help themselves.

The rush to intervene by many Western NGOs has pushed the local initiatives to the fringes. Consequently, locals may never learn to respond to disaster themselves and never work out how to deal with future disasters.

In fact, because local institutions and their communities are weakened by disasters on the scale we are seeing in east Africa today, the cycle of dependency on the West grows even bigger.

There are NGOs like TSM with their long-time partner organisations who were dealing with the drought in east Africa well before the Western media captured it. With support of Western groups they do far better than outsiders in bringing food to people in genuine need.

Meeting the needs of starving people requires more than food. During the drought in 2009 we at TSM worked out that our best contribution was to dig water wells. Two years on the people are using those wells to irrigate food. They are now oases in the desert.

Where these wells exist people are developing a permanent hedge against drought. That is the advantage of engaging with locals. No matter how acute a disaster, locals will always have an eye on the long term. People in the middle of the disaster tell me that had more of this happened, less people would be in the grip of this terrible drought.

It is important that relief help is appropriate. I have seen groups bringing in food from America that ended up being fed to donkeys and other animals. Why? Because the people who sent it wrongly assumed they knew what local people needed.

Even so I struggle with some of the attitudes we encounter. Western donors like to hear that every pound they give will buy food for hungry people. I can understand that, but it’s unrealistic. It costs money to transport food from depots 300 miles to the south. As well as providing food Western donors need to grasp the challenge of making sure that all the necessary overheads are in place.

If we want to see Africa “feeding itself for a lifetime” then how some Western NGOs operate must change. Let’s be clear. African NGOs will never be able to respond to disaster unless someone outside brings money. But good local connections can ensure it is used effectively.

More needs to be invested in building up the capacity of indigenous organisations. Without a change in this direction, beginning with donor awareness, the cycle of dependency will persist. And Africa may remain a byword for hunger.

Francis Omondi is Director of The Sheepfold Ministries [TSM], a Canon of Kampala Cathedral and Chair of Trustees for CMS Africa.

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