An aid worker's answers about the Horn of Africa

On Tuesday, we asked you what questions you have about disaster aid and assistance, in an effort to help you better understand the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa and its implications for aid recipients and aid donors. Betsy Baldwin, whom we introduced you to, answered some of your most pressing questions. Read the post that started this: Ask an aid worker about the Horn of Africa.

Betsy Baldwin, World Vision Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs

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 is currently in Nairobi, Kenya, on her second visit to the Horn of Africa to assess needs and determine programmatic response.

From T: How do you ensure that what is written on paper is what happens on the ground?

Great question, and possibly the subject of future posts here on the World Vision Blog -- how do we actually do emergency relief? A short, sweet answer for now is simply that we make sure we have experienced, professional disaster-responders on the ground, running the relief response. This means that with almost every disaster response in which we are involved, we have a mix of both local and also international staff -- all experienced and capable.

All World Vision disaster response efforts are monitored at different stages throughout the response by professional staff based in our regional offices and support offices. This gives us the chance to see right away whether things are going as planned, and make adjustments where they are not.

Finally, any government grants that World Vision might win to support our relief response are necessarily subject to external audits.

From David: How's security in the Horn of Africa, and what are the main concerns (security-related or not) when bringing humanitarian assistance in the region?

David, you are absolutely right: Security risks are a concern in nearly every context where World Vision responds to disasters. As a general principle, any time you have large population movement or displacement, combined with an acute loss or lack of critical resources such as food or water, you put yourself at risk by bringing resources into that environment.

Many of the regions most affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa are quite remote. Traveling short distances, even just from towns to refugee camps, isn’t safe. The prevalence of small arms -- guns, hand grenades, etc. -- among informal and formal armed groups (in other words, everybody’s packing heat) makes risk analysis important for each area where we are working. It's also necessary to have good local networks of information-sharing.

Some of the security concerns are threats like ambush, kidnapping, vehicle hijacking, and theft. Although this isn't our preference, sometimes we have no choice but to use armed escorts. (Note: World Vision, like almost every other humanitarian organization, has a very strict “no weapons” policy. No World Vision staff members use or carry weapons of any kind.)

From Shawna: How far does the money go when I contribute to the Horn of Africa Food Crisis Fund? What does $100 buy, and how many people are helped?

Shawna, this is a very common question. Many people want to know specifically how much good their donation does. Here are a few examples of what around $100 can do through World Vision in the Horn of Africa:

• $110 can feed a family of six with grains, beans, and oil for one month.
• $100 can help a tanker truck provide water to a family of six for one month.
• $110 can provide a family survival kit with a tarp, mosquito net, three blankets, two buckets, 100 water purification tablets, one kitchen set, and one hygiene kit (soaps, toothpaste/toothbrushes, toilet paper, etc.)

At the risk of complicating my answer, I do need to add, though, that these are rounded averages. A great many factors might make these numbers go up or down: whether some items are available for local procurement, as opposed to buying internationally and shipping them into the country; the overall number of families we’re able to serve, and the associated management/logistics burden; and so on.

From Andrew: How does World Vision care for international aid workers in the sense of making them feel a part of the team? Remote workers (especially international aid workers) have a quick burnout rate -- how do you find from the field that you are supported by World Vision?

Andrew, regarding your first question, we find that disaster response professionals tend to be very internally cohesive. In our experience, disaster response teams are among the most close-knit of any within World Vision. Once we’ve been through a few difficult times together -- hostile checkpoints, days without bathing, etc. -- there is a real sense of team oneness that develops almost organically in every disaster response in which I have personally taken part. In the Horn of Africa response, there are people I’m meeting now for the first time, but we’ll be friends for life after this!

Your second question, about burnout -- well, that’s a reality of this line of work. Eventually, every one of us, no matter how “tough,” has to take a break. Modern technology like Skype, Facebook, email, and cell phones help us stay connected to our friends and support networks while we’re in the field. World Vision does have a staff care unit assigned to support our disaster response staff. And we’re required to take time off at specific intervals during deployment to disaster zones.

From Nathan: 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?

Nathan, really good question! For the benefit of those reading who may not know, let me first say straight out that there are two schools of thought on the issue of food aid. One says that it’s good -- food aid gets food into the mouths of those who don’t have enough, while simultaneously using valuable agricultural surplus from the United States (or Europe or Australia) to help others. Now, the other school of thought says that it’s not so good -- sending wheat or corn from America to Africa and just giving it away puts local farmers there out of business, which means that those people are now even more dependent on foreign aid, making things worse rather than better. Obviously, there’s much more to it than just this, but this is the basic divide.

World Vision has decided to implement food aid as an organization. There are some humanitarian organizations that don’t. But we do. World Vision also recognizes the value in stimulating local markets, saving on freight costs, and the other benefits associated with local and regional procurement (LRP). When there are opportunities to undertake this means of providing food, World Vision pursues it.

So, Nathan, at long last, the direct answer to your question is “both/and.” We’re implementing USAID Title II programming in Ethiopia. And we’re also pursuing LRP where this is a legitimate option throughout the region as a whole.

From Julie: Some people think aid isn't getting through to where it needs to go, based on what's happened in other places in the past. Is 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.

From Kimberly: I recently started sponsoring a child in Kenya, and the reason why I chose this area was due to this awful drought and famine. 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?

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

Julie, Vickie, and Kimberly: I hope you don’t mind that I try to answer your questions together, because in many ways, they’re similar. If I understand you all correctly, you’re asking for assurance that the money you give to World Vision actually does get spent in the manner promised, rather than being diverted elsewhere.

Like other humanitarian organizations, World Vision is under some strict laws that lay out very specifically our accountability requirements regarding the use of funds from generous donors like yourselves. The "rules" vary somewhat by donor country, but basically, there are clear legal limits on the use of your funds. We have to use your donation for the purpose that you intended when we accepted it. (For example, if you donated to the Horn of Africa Food Crisis Fund, that is what World Vision must use your donation for.) And since we’re typically audited every year, the chances of your donation being diverted -- even accidentally -- are very slim.

It also helps to understand that we draw a pretty sharp line between funds donated for disaster response, like this one in the Horn of Africa, and funds donated for long-term development programs. In other words, if you’re sponsoring a child, you can rest assured that even during this time of crisis, your sponsorship dollars continue to be used as they were prior to the crisis. (For more questions about child sponsorship, check out this post). Disaster response funds are raised to be separate from child sponsorship. We do not mix sponsorship money with disaster response money.

The question of what percentage goes directly to beneficiaries is basically a question of what we call “overhead” -- the amount of money or percentage of our budget that goes to things not directly linked to programs in the field. And the issue of overhead -- how it’s calculated, what constitutes an appropriate overhead rate, etc. -- is, like the issue of food aid, a somewhat contentious one within the humanitarian aid community.

I can tell you that World Vision uses a global overhead calculation of 15 percent. Like the question about how far $100 goes, this is a rounded average. There is a lot that goes into arriving at this number (perhaps the subject of future posts). But basically, you can assume that no less than $0.85 of your donated dollar goes directly to field programs that serve beneficiaries on the ground.

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We welcome more of your questions concerning humanitarian aid, disaster response, and current crises like the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. Please continue to ask us in the comments section. We hope that this is the beginning of many more posts from our Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs team.


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    Thank you for all you do. My sister and I are organizing this event and proceeds will go to WV.
    9-25-2011 US Families for Families in the Horn of Africa- Benefit Concert and Brunch | Lincoln Hall

    How many volunteers and how many employees do u have? Thanks

    Thank you for the answer!! It is greatly appreciated.

    Thank you for the answer and may God bless every dollar donated and used in this effort!

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