ACF braves Somalia’s lawless south
Publisher: The Financial Times, UK
Author: By Tom Burgis in London
Story date: 17/11/2011
Language: English

In the 11 months since Financial Times readers donated $1.6m to Action Against Hunger/ACF International in last year's seasonal appeal, the charity has once more found itself on the front lines of the battle against starvation.

Working to combat malnutrition in more than 40 countries, ACF has seen its share of crises. Yet rarely have relief agencies been confronted with a calamity as grave as that caused by the drought that struck the Horn of Africa this year, imperilling an estimated 13m people.

In July the UN declared a famine in Somalia, the worst in nearly 20 years in a conflict-torn country as miserable as any on earth. One in every two Somalis is now at risk of starvation, the UN's World Food Programme estimates, many of them beyond the reach of international assistance.

Numerous relief agencies have raised the alarm over the Somali hunger crisis and sought to assist refugees in Kenya and other neighbouring countries.

Yet few have braved the epicentre in Somalia's lawless south, swaths of which are controlled by the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, which became the target of a Kenyan invasion launched last month.

ACF has been working in Somalia since 1992, the year before a US-led military incursion targeting warlords in Mogadishu, the capital, ended with the deaths of 18 American soldiers and a Malaysian when militiamen shot down two Black Hawk helicopters.

Today the charity has 154 local staff in the country. They provided emergency nutrition to 15,000 people between January and August and reached hundreds of thousands more with clean water, health programmes and food distributions.

"To scale up in the areas we are working has not been an easy task," says Jean-Michel Grand, an ACF executive director. "It has meant negotiations with local leaders, with al-Shabaab."

Mr Grand says ACF's access in Somalia is testimony to the spirit of independence that has characterised the organisation since it was founded by a group of French intellectuals in 1979.

This year's FT appeal – for Sightsavers, an international charity working to prevent avoidable blindness and assist blind people in poor countries – begins on Monday.

Funds from last year's appeal have gone to ACF's Horn of Africa mission and also to help sustain existing projects and support its advocacy work.

Although the Central African Republic's informal diamond trade has picked up a little after a recent crash, life for miners and their families remains precarious.

So the ACF project there, visited by the FT a year ago, has expanded its focus beyond emergency feeding to efforts to improve farming techniques and help local women diversify incomes.

ACF, which raised $215m last year, is planning an ambitious funding drive to boost its income by $50m annually over the next five years.

If successful, this would allow the charity to increase the number of malnourished children it treats each year from 220,000 children last year to 500,000 by 2015.

Worldwide, food is becoming stubbornly expensive. As austerity policies bite in rich nations, the task of securing government funding is becoming ever more difficult.

"The crisis in Europe is taking its toll in terms of diverting priorities," says Mr Grand, adding that ACF lobbied world leaders at the recent Group of 20 summit urging action on hunger and food prices. "We can understand that but we don't have to accept it."
 

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