Mercy Corps battling famine in Horn of Africa

Eighteen-year-old Saadia Farah and her one-year-old daughter Amina
Erin Gray/Mercy Corps photo

Last week I wrote about IREX, an international, nonprofit agency working in the famine-struck Horn of Africa on long-term projects like education, media and community building. Today I’m focusing on another group that is hard at work providing immediate aid to the region – Mercy Corps.

Tom Paulson recently posted a couple of reports on the work Mercy Corps Communications Director Joy Portella, and others, have been doing in getting out the news on issues in Africa and how they are, basically filling in for news organizations that have dropped the ball on international coverage. But today’s post is not about Mercy Corps’ communications role. It’s about Mercy Corps’ ongoing direct effort to head off starvation for more than 1 million people.

Yesterday, Seattle-based Portella and a colleague, Erin Gray, a communications officer for Mercy Corps’ European headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland, gave me a rundown of the aid agency’s work in the areas facing famine.

A traditional herder stands on the withered landscape outside the drought-stricken town of Hadado, Kenya
Joy Portella/Mercy Corps photo

From Joy:

“Northeast Kenya is our newest program – started up in just the past few weeks. We’re providing water and emergency fuel (to keep water pumps running) to 185,000 people in 30+ villages. Some of these villages haven’t seen rain in years.

“Next we’ll start providing water and food vouchers. In many areas, there’s food in markets and even sometimes water for sale, but herders who’ve lost all their animals don’t have income to purchase anything. By providing them with vouchers, it allows them to access goods that are already in markets, and it boosts local businesses. It’s smarter than bringing food and water in if it’s already available locally.

“Also, note that we’re not working in the big camps in Kenya like Dadaab. Our strategy is to get people resources in villages and towns so that they don’t get so desperate that they flee to places like Dadaab; once people get into a camp system, they become dependent upon the resources there and can get “stuck” for years.

“We’ve worked in Ethiopia for years and have a very robust response there. Our team in Ethiopia has seen this drought coming for months, and they’ve been working with local herder and farming communities to help people become more resilient to drought – helping them to store water, farm smarter, and become more educated about health and nutrition so that when drought strikes, they’ll be better able to cope with it. We’re also running emergency response programs there providing food, water and income.”

From Erin:

“As for our work in Ethiopia – the mobile emergency health clinics are reaching hundreds of people every day, screening for and treating malnutrition in children under five, and pregnant and nursing mothers.

“Each team includes nurses and nutrition specialists, and they travel to some of the most remote areas in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, giving support to communities who often have no other health services available at all.

“We’re trucking in food and water supplies to areas worst hit by the drought, too, and for many we’re the only support that is reaching them at all.

“We’re also working with farmers to help them avoid losing everything when drought hits – we’re training them on the most effective techniques for growing maize and sorghum and giving them faster growing varieties of seed that are less dependent on rain, as well as helping herders keep their remaining animals healthy.”

Both Joy and Erin have done some great blogs about their on-the-ground observations. Here are samples of recent posts. I encourage you to go to their sites for more.

Joy Portella
Mercy Corps photo

Joy’s blog: Checking in on our team in northeastern Kenya

“I returned from the drought-stricken Horn of Africa just over two weeks ago, and am amazed by the progress our team has made in such a short period of time. But there is an enormous amount of work to be done in the coming months as millions of families struggle to survive the long, dry summer and early fall.

“Today I had the opportunity to talk with our Africa Director Matthew Lovick, who’s traveling with our team in Wajir County, one of the areas I recently visited. He and our team spent yesterday traveling to seven of the eight villages where we’re working in western Wajir.

“A seasoned aid worker, Lovick declared that he’d “never seen anything like it,” referring to the incredibly arid land and desperation of people and animals.”

Erin Gray
Mercy Corps photo

Erin’s blog: When the only asset you have left is hope

“At only 18, Saadia Farah is one of the many thousands of mothers that Mercy Corps is helping survive the drought crisis in East Africa.

“Her story is hard, but unfortunately far from unique. She lives in the tiny village of Bilil Burbur in northeastern Kenya, in an area scorched by the drought and more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the nearest water source. Her children — one-year-old Amina and three-year-old Abdihakim — were shy, quiet and lethargic at her side as she talked.

“‘Life is very difficult for us now. The drought has taken everything we had. My husband goes away for weeks at a time with the few goats we have left, to find water and food for them. Sometimes he is gone for a very long time. Mostly I spend all my time just waiting for him to come back and worrying about what we will do. It is very hard.'”

Here’s a list of organizations working in the region and taking donations for immediate famine relief:


CARE: 800-422-7385

Catholic Relief Services: 800-736-3467

Doctors Without Borders: 888-392-0392

Mercy Corps: 888-256-1900

Oxfam America: 800-77-OXFAM (800-776-9326). Outside the U.S.: 617-482-1211

800-FOR-KIDS (800-367-5437)

Save the Children: 800-728-3843

U.N. World Food Program: 866-929-1694

UNICEF United States Fund: 800-FOR-KIDS (800-367-5437)

World Concern 866-530-5433 or by texting the word “crisis” to 20222

World Vision 888-511-6443





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  • Cameron Bays

    Thanks for sharing this important message, Humanosphere!