A focus on in Somalia, Kenya, and South Sudan

By Jephiter Tsamwi

Just between the period of 2010-2021, Adeso, spent in excess of $75 million US Dollars in cash transfer programs. I am proud to be a part of an organization that has led the distribution of cash, and pioneered this now world-leading intervention, to drought and conflict-stricken Somalia and other countries in the region. But this is not the end of the story. As Somalia faces yet another famine, we must recognize that this aid tragedy is not only a tip of the iceberg, but a disturbing reminder that the current system needs a revolution. 

Regrettably, irrespective of billions poured into the communities, by not just Adeso but many development partners in the last 3 decades, today there is little change in the lives of families in Somalia. The country continues to sink into poverty with nearly 70 percent of Somalis living below the poverty line and 90 percent live in multidimensional poverty.  Heightened evidence of donor dependency is characteristic; from Sanaag to Mudug, from Dhobley to Afmadow, Juba and beyond, communities yearn for yet another round of cash injection, year after year. This is the time to rethink aid in its various contemporary facets. 

At Adeso, we are taking bold steps to challenge the current system. We are pursuing justice, with humility and courage to challenge the status quo, sharing our lessons learned, and championing a new strategic direction that is people centered in how aid and development is delivered. As we realize the decolonization of aid, we must provide critical diagnosis of programs like cash transfer.  

Since 2003, Adeso has been implementing cash transfer initiatives, and applying innovative approaches that made it possible for cash distribution in the most difficult zones.  Institutions like USAID requested Adeso to move beyond its work in Somalia and work in northern Kenya and South Sudan in response to droughts and humanitarian crisis, as cash transfers were not being implemented at all in those regions or at least not with high quality. Adeso pioneered cash based interventions at a time the world deemed it unimaginable to use cash to respond to a crisis in a conflict zone. The skeptics thought maybe the cash will be used to buy guns or other negative outcomes. We proved them wrong. Yet we remain aware and cautious of unintended consequences. Consequences that are avoidable, but remain buried by a seemingly unshakable world system arguably designed to keep the poor unemancipated. 

Families have too often become dependent on cash transfer programs. Access to  multiple cash programs simultaneously has driven away motivation to work or maintain traditional lifestyles. This is a fault of the system in which cash transfers operate, not the people living in poverty doing their utmost to provide for their families, children, and neighbors. 

While we acknowledge the challenges, several studies and Adeso’s experience highlight that cash based interventions are important avenues for supporting individuals. They remain a flexible, fast, and effective means through which emergency assistance can be provided to the communities in crisis. For instance, in 2011, Somalia experienced one of the worst famines in the country’s history, with FAO reporting that the emergency killed tens of thousands of people. Adeso and other organisations responded with cash interventions and significantly helped reduce the impact of the disaster. Cash based interventions have saved thousands of lives. But the short-term glory cannot overshadow the long-term tragedy that can often come with it. 

Based on Adeso’s decades of experience in implementing cash-based interventions, we offer 5 key lessons learned to help the our global community to better design and fund sustainable interventions:

1. Design for sustainability from the onset. 

Many times, sustainability only comes as an afterthought. Cash based interventions must be designed with the desire to promote self-reliance and resilience. In this respect, cash for work interventions provide a better solution in which communities work together to improve community infrastructure, develop income generating streams and in return get minimum expenditure basket measured cash as a reward. This approach respects and reflects community dignity, and avoids a deepening vulnerability through unstainable donor dependency.

2. Cash transfers must be done only as a short-term intervention. 

Stretching it beyond 6 months increases the risk of creating donor dependency. Between 2010 and 2021, Adeso implemented more than 7 cash-based interventions in only Sanaag and Mudug, with programs such as Somalia Community Recover and Economic Support (SCORES) project stretching beyond 12 months. Year after year, the two regions have been a consistent target of millions of donor aid in the form of cash relief. The consistent supply of cash in these communities has created community-based aid ‘mafias’, who have not only become dependent on aid for livelihoods but have even mastered the tricks of hoodwinking every potential donor to become beneficiaries. This story of cash dependency where people sit in camps benefiting from several UN or INGO cash programs simultaneously is rampant throughout the country. 

3. There is a need for greater coordination among partners working in the same area to avoid double to multiple dipping and preserve value for money. There is documented evidence of corruption in most cash transfer interventions, with some community members getting a lion’s share at the expense of others. There are people registered to multiple UN and INGO programs as cash beneficiaries.  There are people being registered who are not really the most vulnerable. There are people who prefer staying idle in camps waiting to be registered rather than going back to their farms or pastoral way of life.  This is evidence of a systems failure. The current aid system is sadly not designed to promote integration and foster synergies among organisations, even if they are working in the same community. Each partner enters a community with the false pretext that there has been nothing done by anyone before.  Adeso has been advocating for for almost 15 years for a national registry and national ID system of all aid beneficiaries run by the government.  The aid community could have easily funded and helped implement such a crucial initiative over the past years.  After a while, one wonders if the international aid actors truly want a coordinated aid system that does not create dependency but creates resiliency?  

4. Cash Based Programs must be locally driven and participatory.

In our efforts towards promoting the decolonization of aid, Adeso has already pioneered community driven approaches like Saxansaxo, an initiative that recognises the power for communities to be leading agents in implementing programs targeting self. In Adeso’s long history of implementing cash programs, we have used the Inclusive Community Based Targeting (ICBT) to ensure that the entire community is involved in the registration of cash beneficiaries.  Saxansaxo actually goes even further in recognizing agency and power by appreciating existing community action taking place.  Rather than come in as an aid actor, we need to support existing community initiatives through community grants.  We always talk about community participatory approaches but there is nothing more empowering than getting out of the way as an aid actor and simply facilitating resource transfer to existing community activities.  

5. We need to transition from cash to more sustainable approaches to solving intractable problems.

 As Adeso, we recognize our long history of implementing cash interventions in conflict zones like Somalia and its influence on the sector with humility.  There is much that we can learn from what hasn’t worked. We are conscious of these aforementioned unintended consequences.   

Jephiter Tsamwi is the Advocacy and Communications Manager for Adeso 

For more information about Adeso and our Programs, please contact 

Stephanie Heckman, the Chief Development & Partnerships Officer at  sheckman@adesoafrica.org  

Website: www.adesoafrica.org  

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