First Person

When the most practical—and elegant—form of aid is cash

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Baba Gaye Sylla outside his home in Kerewane, Senegal. Photo by Holly Pickett/Oxfam America.

It’s not a good idea to stop the legitimate flow of money to a country facing a food crisis.

There’s nothing like a little cash to help cope with an emergency. Two years ago I talked with farmers in eastern Senegal who told me just that, following a bad harvest in 2011. Few of them had any money to buy food during the 2012 growing season, known as the “lean time” in the Sahel.

When Oxfam looked at the best ways to help, our staff could see food in markets, but it was expensive. So instead of distributing food, and undermining the local food traders, Oxfam distributed cash.

In a small village called Kerewane I met Baba Gaye Sylla, a 35-year-old married (with two wives) father of seven children who received three $90 payments from Oxfam over the course of about three lean months. “I used the money first for food,” Sylla told me. He bought two 50-kg. bags of rice, and some onions, some spices for making soup, and cooking oil – enough to feed his family for about three months. “Then, I had some sick children, so I bought some medication for them.” He also bought books and paid school fees for his children.

For Sylla, cash was the most effective form of assistance. By giving it to him we also showed that we respect his ability to make decisions about what is best for his own family.

(I’ve also spoken with flood survivors in Cambodia who got cash from Oxfam.)

This is why it is so troubling for me to hear that US Treasury Department regulations are making it impossible for banks in the US to send money transfers to Somalia, cutting off much needed resources to a country that is at risk of a severe food crisis. There are tens of thousands of Somalis in the US trying to get money back to their families, and unless the Treasury Department changes course they will have no legal means to transfer their cash.

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Herding goats in Somaliland in 2008. Erratic rains in 2014 have made for dry, difficult conditions for farmers and herders. Photo by David Levene/Oxfam.

Somalia has recently experienced late and erratic rains, so crops are not growing well, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. “Lower stocks, coupled with the market and trade disruptions, led to double-digit increases in wholesale prices of maize and sorghum in some areas,” the FAO reported. It says maize and sorghum prices have jumped as much as 60 and 80 percent (respectively) higher than last year.

Every year Somalis living outside the country send back home about $1.3 billion, according to Oxfam’s report Keeping the lifeline open. This is more than the country brings in from aid and investment combined. Over $200 million comes from the United States (more than the US government invests in development and humanitarian aid in Somalia in most years). The US is understandably concerned about money laundering and diversion by criminal networks, but if we cut off legitimate funds going to support families in crisis, then people will have to find other means to send money home, making it even harder to track funds going to Somalia.

And if there is even a minor disruption in the flow of money, the humanitarian situation in Somalia could deteriorate to the point where we have to contemplate expanding an already significant humanitarian assistance operation.

A Somali-American named Hamdi Abdulle in Washington state started a petition calling for the US Treasury Department to keep the lifeline to Somalia open; please add your voice.

Cash, from family or any other source, can play a crucial role in helping families cope with food shortages. Cash is an elegant form of humanitarian aid: Families can use it for what they need, and make their own decisions about the best way to spend it. Cash is an even more elegant solution when provided person to person, between family members who care deeply about and feel accountable to one another.

Speak out now—tell the US Treasury not to cut this lifeline to Somalia.

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