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Cash helps Ethiopian pastoralists cope with disastrous locust infestation

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Cash assistance is increasingly becoming the preferred way of supporting people who are being affected by a humanitarian crisis. For many local aid and development organisations, however, this is still a new and unfamiliar method. Through the SCORE project, a capacity-building programme and joint effort by Cordaid and Trócaire, several local NGOs have been trained to efficiently transfer cash to people in urgent need.

In the southern Ethiopian Somali region, Cordaid’s partner RACIDA supports pastoralists farmers who have lost their crops due to a major locust infestation.

Like Fatuma Mohamed, 44 years old and living in Hudet, a small town in the Somali region. She is the mother of two boys and four girls. Her husband died during an outburst of violence between two opposing clans in the area. The fighting has been going on for more than two years now, many lives have been lost and an even greater number of people sought refuge elsewhere.

“The infestation was a huge catastrophe, which affected the rich and the poor equally. It completely disrupted the community.”

Abdi Omar, Director of RACIDA

After Fatuma and her children had found a safe haven in Hudet, disaster struck again. This time in the shape of a tiny plant-eating creature, or better yet, millions of them.

Unprecedented desert locust infestation

Large parts of East Africa have been dealing with an unprecedented desert locust infestation in the past year and Fatuma is one of its many victims. The hungry insects destroyed her entire farm, leaving behind only dry land, without any crops to feed the family or even their livestock.

Thankfully, the aid workers of RACIDA were quick to respond. They identified and targeted 475 households in the area, families suffering the same severe consequences of the infestation as Fatuma, and they came up with a contingency plan. The solution to a lot of the pastoralist’s immediate problems: cash.

Cash assistance: effective and cost-efficient

Traditionally, in a case like this, organisations would start providing food aid. “This would be shipped by international partners”, says Samuel Tenna, Head of Programmes for Cordaid in Ethiopia. “Large organisations have the capacity to mobilise resources, procure from international and local markets and provide food to people who have been affected by drought. But in recent years the price of food, as well as the cost of transport, has risen drastically. This compelled us to search for alternatives. Cash assistance is an effective and cost-efficient response to the urgent needs of people.”

“A cash response has the flexibility to save the lives of the most affected people, while still involving the local economy.”

Samuel Tenna, Head of Programmes Cordaid Ethiopia

Apart from efficiency, another benefit of cash over traditional food aid is its effect on the local, often rural, economies. In disaster areas and conflict zones, relief organisations select the most vulnerable people to provide them with food, unintentionally disregarding the needs of local business owners.

Aid efforts are – and should be – always temporary. When the support ends, farmers and sellers struggle to sustain their livelihoods in a fragile economic system. Tenna: “A cash response has the flexibility to save the lives of the most affected people, while still involving the local economy. It gives people the possibility to meet their own specific needs. Food can only be consumed. But when disaster strikes, food might not be the only thing you need. People also need to cover other expenses, such as hygiene materials, school fees and household items.”

Control and dignity

No one crisis requires only one type of response. But in most cases, cash support gives the victims of a tragic event the means and the control they need to get back on their feet, in a dignified manner, on their own terms.

Just like Fatuma managed to do with the 4400 Birr (about 115 dollars) she received from RACIDA. “This meant a lot to me and my family”, Fatuma told a staff member of RACIDA. “We managed to survive during the crisis. With the maize seeds I have replanted my farm and I hope to be able to harvest in the coming month.”

Fatuma is delighted with the support she gets. In many instances, however, it is not only the affected community that needs help, also aid workers themselves often require the right guidance and technical assistance to make sure that their efforts will reach the aspired goals.

Putting learnings into practice

Through the European Union-funded SCORE programme, the staff at RACIDA was trained to distribute cash in case of a crisis. During the locust infestation, RACIDA received the support of the Dutch Relief Alliance, a collaboration of 16 Dutch organisations, among which Cordaid. In this humanitarian response, they were able to put their new learnings into practice in southern Ethiopia, which at this moment has not been affected by the conflict in the northern Tigray region, but is dealing with its own set of problems.

“For now, the situation has improved. But there is a lot of fear that new locust larva might hatch during the seasonal rainfall”, says Abdi Omar, the Director of RACIDA. “The infestation was a huge catastrophe, which affected the rich and the poor equally. It completely disrupted the community. Luckily, things are starting to look better and the farmers we supported have already replanted their crops.”

RACIDA’s programme for cash assistance played an important part in getting the community back on its feet and the SCORE programme enabled them to respond quickly and efficiently. “The programme was very helpful”, says Abdi Omar. “The training improved the knowledge and skills of our staff, not only on cash assistance but also on digital data collection, which we are using now for the registration of beneficiaries and to conduct surveys.”

Challenges of cash assistance in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Somali region is as remote as it gets in today’s world. The pastoralist living there rely, for the most part, on their traditional ways of doing things. Though he is a firm believer in the method of cash assistance, Abdi Omar and his staff also face a few challenges during the implementation. “The cash transfers are digital and in this region we have to deal with a lack of network coverage, which could cause some delays. We also need to be wary of not disturbing the local market system by creating inflation. But in the end, it is a much less time-consuming and a less complicated way of supporting people, while also increasing their purchasing power.”

The SCORE project will end this fall, but according to Samuel Tenna of Cordaid in Ethiopia, building capacity to respond to crisis through cash transfers will become a more integrated part of many humanitarian efforts. “SCORE won’t return as a standalone project, but training on efficient cash assistance, digital data collection and monitoring will certainly be part of our future projects and partnerships.”

-> Read all about the SCORE programme