Ask an aid worker about the Horn of Africa

Update: read the follow-up post: An aid worker’s answers about the Horn of Africa

Want to know more about managing household finance? Talk to Suze Ormann. Health advice? Watch Dr. Oz. General wisdom? Google, of course.

But what about those disasters all over the news? It looks like a lot is going on.... or not? Who should you ask to find out about the issues in a big disaster response, like the current drought and famine in the Horn of Africa?

You ask an aid worker. Why? Because they're out in the disaster zone talking to survivors and assessing needs, determining the scale and involvement of response, identifying funding sources for assistance plans, writing proposals communicating with donors about needs and planned projects, and getting the projects started.

In an effort for all of us to better understand the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, we're gleaning from the inspiration of Rachel Held Evans interview series, "Ask a ____" and starting our own "ask" series. In this post, I'd like to introduce you to Betsy Baldwin -- disaster response expert.

Betsy is a program officer for World Vision Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs, currently focusing on relief efforts in the Horn of Africa -- where 12.4 million people are affected by drought and famine. She has degrees in Civil Engineering from Iowa State University and Virginia Tech, and has worked in relief development in Darfur, Sudan, Northern Afghanistan, Haiti (following the January 2010 earthquake), conflict regions of the Congo, and South Sudan.

She recently returned from the Horn of Africa, assessing needs in Somalia. (Read her blog post about her visit and "Being a humanitarian -- from the desk or the field".)

When I first met Betsy, she was introduced to me as a (and I quote) "total aid worker expert." When I asked her why she thinks the public needs to better understand humanitarian aid work, this is what she said:

"We are seeing an increase in disasters for several reasons -- some related to climate change and others related to higher demand for resources (oil, raw materials for electronics, etc.) from under developed nations. Providing assistance means saving lives now but also preventing lives from being lost in future disasters."

If you have questions for Betsy, here's your chance -- leave them in the comment section. Remember that the point is to ask the sort of questions that will help us better understand humanitarian aid work and the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Wednesday, we'll pick the top six or seven questions and give them to Betsy to answer first-hand. (And if you like someone else's question, leave a reply saying so. That way we can get a sense of what questions are of most interest to you.) Look for her answers and responses this Thursday.

Read Betsy's follow-up post: An aid worker’s answers about the Horn of Africa


    What kinds of things does World Vision do to help the people in the famine-ravaged areas of Africa? How does the aid that we give reach the people?

    I always think we as a society should be able to help Africa overcome this as an US citizen I have an abundance. I just don't understand why when people give and give it just seems to barely make a difference as a whole. Is it that people just aren't generous enough? btw I do sponsor a child.

    Leah - I think you're conflating a couple of key concepts. Specifically (1) Should we (citizens of developed countries with relative wealth) do more to help? (2) Shouldn't we be able to "fix" Africa?

    To the first, I'd answer "yes." It's just an opinion, but I think we have a moral obligation to help those in need when it is within our power to do so.

    To the second, I'd answer a vehement "No!" I'd argue that we're not able to fix Africa (or any other place, really... I mean, we - the USA - haven't even fixed New Orleans or NYC ground zero yet). Moreover, I'd further argue that it is not our job to fix Africa (or any place). Fixing Africa is Africa's job.

    In my opinion we should be generous and help where we can. But we have to do so with realistic expectations around what the outcomes of our help should and will likely be.

    Andrew - I don't see anything in your blog post that even remotely answers Leah's question.

    Some people think the aid isn't getting through to where it needs to go, based on what's happened in other places in the past. Is the aid, in fact, coming through to the Horn of Africa? We have donated, and trust that it will make a difference, but I ask this question simply for those who have doubts. Bless you for your humanitarian service!!

    The CRA restrictions are tough in Canada. They ensure that money is indeed going to the project you are supporting. 2 things to consider.

    1. If your donations are being matched $1:$1 - then you might be under the wrong impression of how things are spent.

    2. World Vision uses 15% for admin costs. These cover things like the office costs and salaries including World Vision President (Canada) makes $300,000 base salary (plus a lot of stuff). The old adage, "you have to pay someone what they are worth in the market". I'm not sure applies in this situation...

    Sure it might cost a little more in admin - but this organization has the ability to be on the ground in an event of emergency in very little time. I would continue to support if I were you.

    Re: Dave Toycen, the President of World Vision Canada, earns $184,000 per year plus a "moderate vehicle allowance," according to that organization's annual report to the Canada Revenue Agency.

    Is one charity automatically more respectable than another just because its leader is paid a lower salary?

    That's an interesting question.

    I recently started sponsoring a child in Kenya and the reason why I choose this area was due to this awful drought and famine that area is experiencing. From what I have read others are flocking to that area for help. Does that mean the money I send for "my" child goes directly to her and therefore frees up additional funds for other children that are in desperate need of help in that area? I really hope this is the case because it truly breaks my heart to imagine a mother/father trying so hard to keep their child alive and relying on aid because they have no other choice. Thank you for what you do!!

    Hey Kim,

    I'm not 100% sure how worldvision does it - but generally your money is put into a big pot with other child sponsorships to cover the costs of your child along with other children.

    The reason they have to do it this way is because if certain donors stop giving money, they won't kick the child in need out the door....
    In some cases children will be sponsored out several times, however the extra funds will go to caring for other kids.
    In this sense your understanding of how the sponsorships are run is correct.

    What percentage of the funds are used directly in care of the immediate needs of those that are hungry and thirsty there in the Horn of Africa?

    Dear Betsy,

    In post-quake Haiti, World Vision distributed 30,400 MT of PL 480 Title II Emergency Food Assistance.

    So, we know that compared to Local and Regional Procurement (LRP), Title II food assistance increases delivery time by almost 400% ( and costs way more (

    Thus, my question is: in the Horn of Africa, is World Vision also using FFP/Title II aid, or are you sourcing locally? And if you are *not* sourcing locally, why not?

    I want to hear about this too, please.


    How does WV care for international aid workers in the sense of making them feel a part of the team? Remote workers (esp Int. aid workers) have a quick burnout rate - how do you find from the field that you are supported by WV?

    How far does the money go when I contribute to the horn of africa food fund? What does $100 buy and how many people are helped?

    We just released a book relief and humanitarian assistance titled "Heroes of the United Nations." It's about people behind the scenes helping others in the poorest areas of the world... And it's about the increasing security risks for aid workers to operate in those areas.

    My question is: how's security in the Horn of Africa and what are the main concerns (security and non) when bringing humanitarian assistance in the region?

    How do you ensure what is written on paper is what happens on the ground?

    Have any organizations ever given thought to using "Spam" for humanitarian situations such as this? I have no idea the nutritional content of this product but I know it was utilized very effectively during and after WWII and just wanted to know if it has been considered or if not why? Thanks, J

    What's the most desperate situation you've ever been to?

    How is WV able to bypass the foreign governments in Africa that try hard to block aid and/or do not distribute funds to their citizens? How is WV and the aid workers distributing our donations in the form of various aid directly into the hands of the needing and suffering?

    I'm a supporter of World Vision form the Philippines and i also keep a blog site. One of my blog post is about my World Vision T-shirt story. Is there any possibility I can re-post this particular blog post in WV blog? thanks. :)

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